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Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Joy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin

In some ways, 2020 has been a very good year for me. But that is set against loss, both my own and others’.

Happy New Year! by Carol L. Douglas

If I had a bucket list, Tierra del Fuego would certainly be on it. So, when, in March, I had the opportunity to paint there and in Patagonia with my pal Jane Chapin, I jumped. COVID-19 was still just a rumble from China, albeit moving closer. Within 48 hours of our arrival, the Argentines quarantined us in the mountainous region near the Chilean border. As the first snows of the year hit the higher elevations, we painted glaciers and meted out our remaining canvases.

My uncle Bob, from whom I inherited the travel bug, had been in Patagonia a few years back. He was following our exploits by text. He never learned that we made it home, because on March 29, he became an early casualty of the pandemic. It is the worst grief I’ve sustained since the loss of my parents.

Glaciar Cagliero from Rio Electrico, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

I came home feeling very deflated. Painting events were cancelled; my own gallery in Rockport couldn’t open. I asked our local police chief if the new regulations would allow plein air classes; he thought no. The windjammer American Eagle, on which I was scheduled to teach two workshops, cancelled its season. My workshop at Schoodic was rescheduled for October, but it hardly mattered. Nobody was signing up for anything, anyways. By June, my revenues to date were down $10,000 from 2019, and that didn’t include the cost of getting back from Argentina. If I’ve ever been inclined to quit, it was then.

There are two important lessons you can take from your Christian neighbors. The first is to live in faith rather than in fear. That doesn’t mean being foolish. I follow the quarantine and testing regulations of the states to which I travel; I use hand sanitizer and a mask; I avoid unnecessary public exposure. I do not, however, let COVID paralyze me. I recognize that the ultimate disposition of my life isn’t in my hands.

The Dooryard, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, was painted for an event that had to go online; the results were decidedly mixed.

That’s true regardless of your beliefs, by the way. You can do nothing to insulate yourself from the ultimate reality of death. So many Americans (including my uncle) followed the rules punctiliously, but the virus still found them.

The second is that humans need to be flexible to survive tough times. Mature Christians listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, even when it asks them to do odd things. Non-believers may call this ‘listening to their gut,’ but the basic requirement is the same—one has to be open to new ideas. That’s not so easy at my age, when system and structure have had decades to accrete.

On the other hand, Cape Elizabeth's Paint for Preservation was a hit, even online.

I was extremely resistant to teaching online. I didn’t think it would be a good experience for my students. However, my friend Mary Byrom encouraged and coached me, and today I think it’s at least as good as live classes. It has forced me to be more proactive in designing lessons. That, in turn, has given me the nucleus of the book I’ve always intended to write.

In the end, much happened that was lovely. I suspended minimum enrollment requirements and ended up teaching three successful workshops—at Schoodic, in New Mexico, and in Florida—despite concerns about travel. I learned a new technology, and even made some pretty terrible painting videos. Learning is growth; in that regard, 2020 has been a very good year for me. But that is set against loss, both my own and others’. So much of life is like that, a mix of sorrow and joy.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: stop comparing yourself to others

Art is not like the Super Bowl, where there are clear winners and losers. It’s not necessary to be the most adept, brilliant, or incisive painter for your work to profoundly influence others.

Deer in snow, by Carol L. Douglas

“You can't be somebody else,” I heard my husband tell a young person. “You can just be the best you can be, and not worry about everyone else.” He was talking about music, but his advice is just as applicable to painting.

I will sometimes ask students whom they most admire among artists, but the answers—while fascinating—seem to have little to do with where they end up as painters. I’ve fed myself on a solid diet of masters from the northern European Renaissance to the 21st century, and I don’t see much continuity between these influences and my own painting. I love them, but I can’t paint like them.

Downdraft snow, by Carol L. Douglas

That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes fall into the pernicious trap of comparing myself to others. As much as I’d like it to be otherwise, I’ll occasionally succumb to the green-eyed monster of jealousy. It’s very difficult to watch someone else do something easily that you’re struggling with, or sail into honors and accolades that elude you.

That can be especially difficult for women artists, who labor under a system that is, in fact, more sexist (in terms of dollars) than society as a whole. So, sisters, cut yourselves some slack.

After teaching for so many years, I know that early success doesn’t always equate to winning the race. Students start at different levels of competence. Some take to painting faster than others. Sometimes these good students are trapped by their facility, because they cannot let go of their cheap tricks to plow through the hard work of learning good technique. At that point, ‘talent’ becomes a trap.

Snowsquall, by Carol L. Douglas

Conversely, there will be students who, for some reason, don’t get it right away, but who, with diligence and effort, will end up painting very well indeed.

At the Art Students League of New York, students are crowded into fairly small rooms. It is impossible to avoid seeing others’ canvases as you work on your own. A fellow student had a sign in his paintbox that read, “Don’t copy.” It was very good advice, but equally helpful would have been one that read, “Don’t compare.”

So how does the artist develop self-confidence based in their own abilities? “Passion plus competence equals self-confidence,” I read this week. It’s a neat, economical explanation.

Toys in snow, by Carol L. Douglas

It doesn’t mean you have to wait until you’re completely competent to be happy. Instead, it gives you a roadmap to get to a point of self-confidence. Yes, painting is sometimes very frustrating, but that’s just a sign that you need to work on your skills in that area.

Art is not like the Super Bowl, where there are clear winners and losers. It’s not necessary to be the most adept, brilliant, or incisive painter for your work to profoundly influence others. But you can’t use the crowd’s applause to tell you if you’re on the right path. You simply have to work from your own gut. And that’s perhaps the hardest lesson in painting.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Nativity

It would be easy to write off this off as just another greeting-card version of the familiar Bible story. But look again.

Nativity, c. 1420, Robert Campin, courtesy Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon

For more than a century, a body of work was identified as being by the so-called Master of Flemalle. These paintings are now generally attributed to the Belgian painter Robert Campin. These attributions are controversial because the artist didn’t sign or date his output. However, the works in question all bear the hallmarks of Campin’s workshop: keen observation, oil paint rather than egg tempera, and complex perspective.

It would be easy to write off his Nativity, 1420, as just another greeting-card version of the familiar Bible story. But look carefully at the corner post emerging from the collapsing wattle-and-daub wall of the stable. “This is an exact portrait of a specific piece of battered, reused timber,” wrote Martin Gayford. “Every knothole, insect tunnel, split, roughly carpentered joint and variation in the grain of the wood is represented with close-focus precision. Beneath, the footing of the wall has been studied with the same fascination, especially a single, knobbly flint.” From there, let your eyes travel to the perfectly realized landscape in the background.

The Annunciation, 1420-25, Robert Campin, courtesy of Museo del Prado

That wooden post, rather than the crowded cast of characters, is the centerpiece of this extraordinary painting. Why was it so important? It’s a symbol of the cross, but it’s much more than that. Renaissance painters were interested in realism because they recognized that Christianity is, ultimately, grounded in tangible reality. This Nativity was meant to teach something more than just the bare-bones Bible story.

According to Christian doctrine we humans are triune beings, made of body, soul and spirit. We’re supposed to be spirit-led, but our faith never denies the importance of our physical crust. Creation started with a physical world, and moved on to a physical man, made from the dust of the Earth. Only at the end did God breathe the spirit of life into that thing he’d made ‘in his own image.’

The two surviving wings of The Werl Altarpiece, 1438, Robert Campin, courtesy of Museo del Prado

So, ours is a physical world operating on physical laws, which is perhaps why science and industry found such fertile ground in the Christian world. But periodically the natural order of things is upset by miracles. This is not just a New Testament thing; see Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.

For modern man, miracles are a tough idea to swallow. If you reject the possibility of miracles in general, then the Nativity makes no sense. But that’s a modern rationalist viewpoint, certainly not shared by most of mankind through history.

The Marriage of the Virgin, 1420s, Robert Campin, courtesy of Museo del Prado

Of course, God can do anything he wants to. It wasn’t ‘necessary’ for Jesus to enter the world through a virgin birth, or to be in human form at all. But there’s no reason he couldn’t, either, and Matthew and Luke both said it happened that way.

As important as his paternity is, the Bible narratives actually emphasize his mother. The fact that he was born of woman was the key to Christ’s humanity, and this—that he came down to earth and shared a literal, physical body—is what made his death and resurrection so important. He really was one of us.

Look at the angels at the top. They’re in a different scale, and they have wings. They’re truly otherworldly, because they’re not like us. But that ugly, mewling baby in the foreground? He’s just an ordinary helpless newborn. As he entered the world like mankind, so we have the promise we’ll leave the world like him. We will share the Resurrection. That is the true miracle of the Nativity, and the message of this remarkable painting.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: Baby, it’s Cold Outside!

Winter’s lack of light might deter the painter, but normal winter temperatures ought not.

Snowstorm at 12 Corners, by Carol L. Douglas. Long since gone to its permanent home.

My nurse-practitioner mother always insisted that one couldn’t get a cold from being cold—after all, it’s a virus. How, then, can I account for my dripping nose and general malaise, when I haven’t been in contact with strangers of my own species in weeks? I have been outdoors for extended periods, and it’s been nippy.

Occasionally, people will tell me, “there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.” I’m from Buffalo, so I know that’s malarkey. But proper gear does help. Winter’s lack of light might deter the painter, but normal winter weather ought not.

Winter storm, 6X8, by Carol L. Douglas. That's generally as big as I work in bad weather.

The most important part of your body to insulate is your feet. Painting is the only outdoor activity I know where you stand in one place in the snow for long periods. That’s far chillier than walking or skiing. A piece of old carpeting or cardboard on the ground will help. Always wear insulated boots and wool socks. Yes, you’ll waddle, but agility isn’t the issue here; insulation is.

I wear nitrile-palm fishing gloves to paint. They’re warm enough for all but the worst days, when I add a chemical hand warmer on the backs of my hands. Dress in layers, as you would for any winter activity. Ladies, that should include long johns (call them Cuddl Duds if it makes you feel better). This year, you can also wear a balaclava (a ski mask to the uninitiated) without shame, even to the bank.

Haybales in winter, by Carol L. Douglas. See those chunks? That's what happens when you paint below 0° F in oils.

You might think the sun is a summer problem, but it can be blinding in the dead of winter. It never bothers to get over the yardarm in December in Maine, which means it’s often thwacking me right in the eyes. A painting umbrella helps now, more than it ever does in summer. If you have any skin showing, use sunscreen.

I regularly store my palettes outdoors in wintertime. Assuming I can find them, I can pull them out of the snowdrift and start painting immediately. In the summer, I move my palettes to a freezer. Most home freezers are set at about 0° F, so the paint is very chilled but not actually frozen. The cold temperatures slow down oxidation, which makes the paint stay open longer.

Winter, pastel, Carol L. Douglas. If you stick with pastel, you won't have material-handling issues in winter, except that chalks are tough to handle with bulky gloves.

Oil paints in linseed oil binder won’t freeze until they reach -4° F (or -20° C). They will thicken slightly as you approach their freezing point; just increase the amount of solvent and they’ll move again. If it gets much colder than that, however, you’ll end up with chunky paint.

At that point, only an insane person or someone trying to prove a point would stay outside and squidge paint around. You’re more likely to snap your easel in extreme cold than you are to come up with anything good. I’m speaking from experience here.

If you use watercolor, you can add grain-alcohol, vodka or gin as antifreeze. A good rule of thumb is that you can add up to 20% booze to your paints before they get tipsy. But not all pigments can handle their liquor. Be prepared for excess paper staining, or different precipitation rates than you’re used to with plain water.

With any medium, you’re unlikely to have precise control of your brushes when you’re bundled up and your hands are in gloves. Work loose and don’t sweat the details.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Awe-inspiring snow

At times, the Great White North reaches down and touches us with its living whiteness and its freakish cold.

Winter Comes From The Arctic To The Temperate Zone, 1935, Lawren Harris, courtesy McMichael Collection of Canadian Art. He is describing exactly what we’re experiencing today, where arctic airmasses have flowed into the northern US.


We got more snow than expected; there’s something like 15” of it in my driveway. That’s nothing compared to the Newark Valley of New York; my friend Marjean trenched a path to her barn through 45” of new powder. Animals must be tended regardless of the weather.

Long before there were cell phones, I routinely painted outside in winter. One year, I committed to plein air painting six days a week regardless of weather. In western New York that can be wicked indeed. That year made me into a painter. It is also how I moved from being an amateur to a professional. I had so many paintings lying around, I was forced to sell them.

The Artist in Greenland, 1935, Rockwell Kent, courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art

Rockwell Kent first visited Greenland in 1929, saying the visit “had filled me with a longing to spend a winter there, to see and experience the far north at its spectacular worst; to know the people and share their way of life.”  In 1931, Kent built himself a hut in in the tiny settlement of Illorsuit, a village north of the Arctic Circle. He wintered and painted there. As a socialist, Kent was enamored of Inuit society, considering their little village a kind of utopia.

Kent later said that his year in Illorsuit was the happiest and most productive time of his life. Among his other pursuits, he acquired a sled and team so that he could make even more remote painting and camping expeditions. In a witty aside, Kent painted himself painting an iceberg, above.

 The Sea of Ice, 1823–24, Caspar David Friedrich, courtesy Hamburger Kunsthalle. The only sign of human activity is the shipwreck.


As a German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich could be described as a utopianist of a different stripe. His goal was to portray that sublime moment when the contemplation of nature causes a reawakening of our spiritual self. (Friedrich was a city-dweller; otherwise he'd have felt differently.)

Friedrich set out a manifesto for painters that still rings true: “The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him. Otherwise, his pictures will be like those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead.”

The only hint of human activity in The Sea of Ice, above, is the subtle, moralizing shipwreck. This is very different from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow, which is a parade of everything medieval man did in the wintertime.

The Hunters in the Snow, 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum


While the overwhelming sense is one of order and industry, the hunters and their dogs are exhausted, and they’ve bagged only one measly red fox. This painting was done during the Little Ice Age, when the threat of famine was real.

Lawren Harris was one of the driving forces behind the Canadian Group of Seven, and the most elastic of them. He went from impressionism to art nouveau realism to complete abstraction in two decades. His final break with realism occurred in the early 1930s, after he visited and painted in the Arctic.

Harris believed in the arctic as a living force: “We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, its call and answer, its cleansing rhythms. It seems that the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity into the growing race of America.” His painting at top is a narration of what happens when that power spills into the northern US and Canada.

Four different painters from different places and times, but they’re all telling stories of winter in very inventive ways. Could we do half as well?

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Chemistry was my worst subject, so it’s ironic that it plays such an important role in painting.

Blueberry barrens, watercolor on Yupo, Carol L. Douglas, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.
My students ask me, on average, a question a week that I can’t answer. Often, these revolve around chemistry. This was my worst subject, so it’s ironic that it plays such an important role in painting. Because I care about the survival of paintings, I really wish I’d paid more attention in high school. Let that be a lesson to you, kids.

I like painting with saltwater in my watercolors. It’s a habit I picked up from Poppy Balser, who also lives along the North Atlantic. It encourages the separation and granulation of the colors, adding just a bit of texture to the whole process. In addition, I occasionally—like many other watercolorists—add salt to create more texture.

Float, watercolor on Yupo, Carol L. Douglas, available.

“But won’t salt degrade the paper?” a student asked. In searching the internet, I found dissenting opinions. The ones that said it would, thought it would do so by lowering the pH of the paper. Acidity is the enemy of paper, a fact known even to dolts like me.

Now, the idea that salt was acid-forming didn’t make much sense to me. Table salt is neutral; you can tell by its taste. I asked my husband, who had the same chemistry teacher as me, but was good at it. He mumbled something about salts being chemical compounds consisting of cations and anions. Suddenly, I remembered just what it was I disliked about the subject.

Bunker Hill Overlook, watercolor on Yupo, Carol L. Douglas, available .

Well, it would be easy enough to test, I thought. I just needed to find some pH test strips. That was complicated a bit by the fact that we live a little to the north of nowhere, and everyone sensible has left for the winter. Eventually, I ordered some online.

At the post office, I tucked them in my jacket pocket. They were promptly filched by my dog. I can now tell you that my dog’s saliva has a pH of 8.5. This is, interestingly, considerably more alkaline than human saliva, which I looked up. Our mouth drippings have a pH normal range of 6.2-7.6.

What was left of my test strips after Guillo ate them.

There were enough strips left to test the raw paper (Strathmore), an area where I’d painted without salt, and a section where I’d used enough salt to create a new ocean. Both painted samples were slightly more acidic than the unpainted paper itself, which was neutral.

Any real scientist would be appalled by my technique. I wet the paper with the spray bottle in my watercolor kit. That contains common tap water, but I figured that whatever impurities it contained would affect all the samples equally. I then stuck the samples down with my index finger—more or less clean—and waited. But I think the results were good enough to tell me that salt doesn’t really affect the pH of the paper. But paint itself does.

My conclusion: salt doesn't make any difference, but paint itself does.

All of which reminded me of a hoary old joke you hear from kids, about dihydrogen monoxide, which is a colorless, odorless, tasteless liquid that’s in everything we eat or drink. I was thinking about it when I rinsed my hair with the stuff this morning, after scrubbing it with a chemical bath that was a surfactant combined with a co-surfactant, and then rinsing with a polymer. Why do we find the results of that so pleasant, and our dirty hair so offensive?

But, more importantly, I was thinking of a little ditty that’s been with us since the early 18th century:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring…
(Alexander Pope)

It’s why I discourage people from making their own mediums, experimenting with substrates, etc. Painting is hard enough when we’re using proven technique. It’s hard enough for conservators to preserve paintings that were done properly. Why make things more difficult?

Monday, December 14, 2020

Know thine own palette

What you learned about primary colors in elementary school is only partially true.

Jack Pine, 8X10, by Carol L. Douglas.

Today’s project is designed to help you learn more about the colors you’ve chosen and to give you more confidence in mixing colors. You can do this in any liquid medium: oils, acrylics, gouache, or watercolor. The examples were done with a Winsor & Newton field kit by my student Sheryl in my Rockport, ME class.

My wheel, above, is an approximation. Every manufacturer formulates its colors differently. Still, I’ve tried to match a pigment name with each spot on the wheel. The biggest circles are what we call the primary colors, followed in size by the secondary colors, and then the tertiary colors.

I encourage students to make their own color wheels based on the pigments they use. But if you want to buy one, Stephen Quiller’s color wheel is excellent.

The outside of the wheel represents the highest chroma (intensity) colors. The center of the wheel represents low-chroma neutrals. The circles in the middle are the common earth pigments.

Start by drawing two circles, one inside of the other, on a piece of paper or a primed white canvas. Then draw a triangle inside the circle to help position your colors.

Sheryl's watercolor palette, interpreted on the color wheel above. Note how lacking her palette is in cool tones.

We’re going to start with paint straight out of the tube. The colors on the outside of the wheel are modern pigments. They’re the highest chroma. The earth tones are historic pigments and less intense. Black falls in the middle.

Use only the paints you carry in your paint kit. No painter has everything. One point of this exercise is to find the holes in your color space.

Find the closest thing you have to true red, blue and yellow. Choose paints that don’t have overtones of other colors. You might not have a color that is a true primary. Don’t force another color into that spot. Sheryl’s kit didn’t have a clear blue. She put both her blue dots to the left of the primary blue square, because they were both a little on the violet side. Another common paint is cadmium yellow medium. It’s actually pretty orange, so it goes to the side of true yellow. Label your colors, if you know their names.

Sheryl's finished wheel, showing various mixes of pigments. Yours should look something like this.

You will have some tubes in your paint kit that don’t belong on the outside of the color wheel at all. Besides the earth tones, tubes that contain more than one pigment are less intense than straight pigments. (Pigments are usually listed on the tube.) Approximate where they go. For example, Sheryl has sap green, which is mix. She put it slightly inside the pure-pigment wheel, because it's on the dull side.

Check your color wheel to see where you have gaps. Sheryl’s paint wheel is strongly weighted toward the warm colors—reds and yellows—and short on the blues and violets.

Draw a dotted line from two pigments on the outside of your color wheel—say quinacridone rose to ultramarine blue. Then make a mixture of those two colors and put a circle of that paint between the two. These are the neutrals you can make with your palette. Repeat this with different combinations until you get bored.

The complements you choose will have a big impact on the end result. Raw sienna is warmer than burnt sienna, so the final greys are warmer too.

You should notice three things:

  • Mixing across the color wheel gives you beautiful neutral tones. They are far more interesting than mixing black and white to get grey;

  • You can never mix a paint that’s more brilliant than the straight-from-the-tube paints you started with. If all your paints are on the dull side, your finished painting will be dull too;

  • What you learned about primary colors in elementary school is only partially true. I remember my disappointment while trying to mix purple as a kid; that was because the paints I had weren’t true blues or reds.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Yankee stories

In the midst of crisis, new traditions are created.

Soft September Morning, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas, was a painting commission.

This week, I drove south to deliver a painting. The client is a redoubtable Yankee lady: straight, strong and smart. Her home is a classic Yankee house. It started as a tiny Victorian cottage and grew pell-mell over the generations.

We got talking—as women do—about the holidays. She had ordered a 28-pound turkey for Thanksgiving. Her family is close, and she normally sets a magnificent table using her grandmother’s linens and her best flatware and dishes.

Fallow field, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas, is available for investment.

Then COVID got worse and our restrictions grew tighter. A 28-pound turkey between two older people is as close to eternity as one wants to get, and she barely outweighs that bird. However, she was obliged. So, she cooked her traditional Thanksgiving feast anyway, and carefully boxed it up. “I had a chart telling me which package went with what so that everyone had enough for dinner and for leftovers,” she said. At the appointed time, her family drove in and collected their Thanksgiving dinners. “The kids were so happy to see their cousins,” she said, “even out in the driveway.”

And—bam—in the midst of crisis, a new tradition is created. “Remember the year we had Drive-Thru Thanksgiving?” those kids will recall as they themselves morph into redoubtable old Yankees. And they’ll remember their resourceful, optimistic, loving grandmother.

Tête-à-tête, by Carol L. Douglas, was a commissioned painting.

From there I went to another client. She had to move in a hurry and bought her new house in a sellers’ market. There were a lot of expensive repairs. The painting I delivered is of her old home, and it will have pride of place because she misses it. But she believes God has placed her there ‘for a reason and a season,’ as we evangelicals are wont to say. She sent me along with a jar of homemade applesauce.

My little dog occasionally needs a stop, so we found a dog park along the way. There was one other human there. She told me she’s planning on buying a van and hitting the road when her only child starts college next fall.

“I haven’t been anywhere for 18 years,” she said. She must have been a very young mother, because she barely looked much over 18 herself. I suggested her son might want a room to come home to, but she’d already thought of that. “His grandparents live here, and they have a room for him, and for me,” she said.

Midsummer, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas, is available, and it's a statement piece; it's large.

Why not? If not now, when? I’ve traveled and camped alone and I recommend it. The bears are unlikely to bother you and the human predators prefer easier pickings. The message she’ll send her son is powerful—you can chart your own course in this world.

I don’t often talk about paintings as investments, but this year has got me thinking about diversification. Like many Americans, my husband and I don’t have pensions. Our retirement savings are invested in mutual funds. The stock market has had a great run, but now I’m thinking about diversifying my own portfolio.

Art is a very illiquid asset. You’re not going to sell it quickly to make a buck, and you should only invest in it if you know something about art to start with. Having said that, the global art boom is here to stay. Worldwide art sales surpassed $67 billion last year. That’s an objective measure of value.

The great beauty of art is that you get to enjoy it while it appreciates (which is not true of my IRA). That means you don’t have to feel self-indulgent if you buy a painting; it may be the best thing you ever did for your heirs.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Opportunity costs

How do you juggle a family, work and other responsibilities with painting?

Working Woman (with Earring), 1910, etching, Käthe Kollwitz, courtesy Brooklyn Museum


“I'm struggling with demands of a family and trying to carve out time for my work. Home schooling, constant interruptions, managing household stuff. I'm struggling to find a place in it all for myself,” wrote a poster on Facebook this week.

When I had my twins in 1989, there was a pernicious canard that women could ‘have it all.’ I was juggling infant twins and a job in an arts organization. A reporter called to do the requisite story on this new mode of working motherhood. She asked me how I was doing. “Not very well!” I snapped. That wasn’t the answer her editor wanted, so she didn’t write the story.

Kandinsky with the Art Dealer Goltz at Aimillerstrasse 36, Munich, 1912, by Gabriele Münter. She let her relationship with Kandinsky dominate her life. That hampered her career.

Three decades later, it’s even more difficult. Today’s young mothers are also hybrid-schooling their kids. This combines the rigidity of the classroom with the demands of the child’s actual presence. My daughter and son-in-law balance their obligations by getting up in the small hours of the morning to do their salaried work. Shades of my mother in the 70s, who went back to college after having six kids. She studied in the wee hours.

I don’t advocate that as a long-term strategy. Chronic sleep deprivation is terrible for your health.

There have been successful women artists through history. They tended to be childless or post-menopausal, as in the case of Anna Mary Robertson Moses. She was from a large family and hired out as a farm hand at age 12. She married and delivered ten children, five of whom lived to adulthood. She really didn’t have time to paint in earnest until she retired and moved in with a daughter. She was 78.

The Young Couple, 1904, etching, Käthe Kollwitz, courtesy Brooklyn Museum

The great exception to this was the German expressionist, Käthe Kollwitz. On her marriage in 1891, she insisted on household help so she could pursue her vocation. The result is some of the most stark and meaningful art of the 20th century.

Kollwitz realized that she had to treat her artwork as a real job or it would be swamped by household demands. That meant hiring out the cleaning and childcare. Too many women artists think they can sneak the artwork in around their domestic duties. That doesn’t respect the importance and demands of either homemaking or art.

But don’t think this is a dilemma limited to women. I have a friend who’s a well-known painter. He has four kids, so he works nights at a big-box store to cover expenses.

Sugaring Off, 1955, Grandma Moses. None of her earlier experiences were a 'waste of time' in terms of her art. They informed everything she painted.

The successful professional artist has much in common with the successful entrepreneur. He or she must be risk-tolerant, willing to work long hours, and able to strip the chaff away from daily life, creating periods of focus and isolation. As with all self-employed people, the artist’s job is a balance of creative work, business management, and—yes—interruptions.

That focus can be tough on the other members of your household. I have a friend whose boyfriend continually complained about her traveling to plein air events. As painting was essential and he wasn’t, he had to go.

COVID has, ironically, freed us from some of our great time wasters—travel, shopping, and entertainment. But we all still have habits, tasks or hobbies that use time. If you want to succeed as a professional artist, you must weigh their importance. There are some, like family, that are priceless, so choose wisely. Be patient with yourself and realize we’re all juggling the same things.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: shiny baubles

When drawing bling, start with the mechanical measurements and work your way down to the details.

Happy New Year! by Carol L. Douglas

Student Samantha East noticed that I sometimes repeat blog posts. This is one of those times. As I jokingly said to Bruce McMillan in Friday’s comments, the lessons in painting are simple. It’s a question of when we’re ready to receive them. But to keep it interesting, I’m more interested in the reflections than the round shapes this year, although both are important.

I like shiny baubles, so I’ve asked my students to paint Christmas decorations this week. This post will give them a heads up on the lesson.

The ornaments we chose: a simple sphere for me and a globe-spider for Sandy.

By now, Christmas decorating is in full swing. We’ve at least located the boxes and asked our families to help carry them down from the attic. (Good luck with that, by the way.) Find a simple, round, reflective ornament. That’s your subject for today.

Those of you who don’t believe in Santa Claus or haven't found the ornaments can find a reflective spherical object to substitute. The back of a metal soup spoon will work just fine. In my example above, I used a plastic toy horn.

Noting the axes.

Sandy Quang was my painting student in Rochester. She went on to get a BFA from Pratt and an MA from Hunter and now works at Camden Falls Gallery. She’s working on her MBA from University of Maine.

I asked her if she wanted to draw with me. Of course, she had her sketchbook tucked in her backpack. “Which one do you want?” I asked her. She chose the spider ornament.

We both added details. Mine were the ellipses on the collar of the ornament; Sandy's were the beaded legs of the spider and her first markings for reflections.

wrote about drawing a glass dish, which is a series of ellipses on a central axis. A circle is easier to draw than an ellipse; it’s an ellipse that is symmetrical on all sides. A sphere appears to be a circle when it’s viewed in two dimensions. This is an unbreakable rule.

Both of us started with the axis of our drawing. For me, that was the vertical axis; for Sandy it was the axis holding her circles together. I mention this because when people say “I can’t draw!” they seldom realize how much of drawing is mechanical, simple measurement. It's best to learn this from life, since the measurement has already been done for you when you work from a photo. You can easily work back from life drawing to working with pictures, but it's harder to go the other way.

Marking out the outlines of our reflected shapes.

Next, we both put the appendages on our spheres. For me, that meant measuring the ellipses in the collar. For Sandy, it was the beaded spider legs. Sandy was starting to note the overall areas of reflection in her spheres.

We both worked on shading next. I finished my shading with an eraser, Sandy couldn't do that because her paper was too rough.

Sandy and I chose different approaches in the next step, dictated by the paper we were working on. Because I had a smooth Bristol, I was able to blend my pencil line into smooth darks with my finger. Sandy could only work light-to-dark on the rougher paper she was carrying. That gives you the chance to see two different approaches to shading.

Our finished drawings: mine on the left, Sandy's on the right. From there, it's just a hop, skip and a jump to painting them.

Sandy has a shadow under her final drawing because the ornament was sitting directly on my coffee table. I put the reflection of myself in my ornament. Those final details were the fun and easy part of the drawing exercise.

All drawing rests on accurate observation and measurement. Get them right and the shading and mark-making is simple.

This post originally ran in 2017 and 2019. It’s been edited.

Friday, December 4, 2020

The Power of Ten

A strong work ethic is a good thing, but sometimes it gets in the way of our real work.

Soft September Morning, by Carol L. Douglas.

Everyone has bad weeks, including me, although I’m usually so annoyingly chipper that it’s hard to tell. This week was a challenge to my sang froid; nothing major (thank God) but a concatenation of little things.

I started the week feeling bloated and out of sorts from too much holiday. My studio is a mess. Then there are the usual stresses of the Christmas season. Like many of us, I suspect, I went back to work on Monday morning in a deflated mood.

On Monday night, I managed to drop my still life—a pie plate filled with water and warm wax—directly into my laptop’s keyboard. I turned it over and shook out the water. My students are smarter than me; they told me to stop our Zoom class and dry out my laptop. My long-suffering technical support department (my husband) disassembled and dried it for me. Other than the sound and mouse, it appears to be working. However, since both of these things are critical, I’ve got a new laptop in my near future.

Add five or six more tealights, then dump in your keyboard. It turned out to be a lousy idea in so many ways.

Of course, I wasted hours of our time. And that made me grumpy. It’s backed up, but shopping for a replacement and recreating a work environment is no simple matter. In the past, this might have thrown me for days.

The Power of Ten is a simple game I play with myself to overcome a bad mood, inertia or paralysis. If I’m facing a mountain of laundry, I tell myself I’ll fold ten items. If my dining room table is covered with papers, I tell myself to file ten of them.

Mess? What mess?

This is not a way to fool myself into doing more; I do stop at ten. It’s a method of staring down what gets in the way of my real work. Like everyone else, I’m the product (in part) of my childhood programming. A strong work ethic is a good thing, but sometimes it gets in our way. Mine tells me I have to finish my chores before I can paint. Doing just a little work gives me permission to ignore the bigger mess.

Taken into the studio, that means I pick up and put away ten things. My suitcase on the floor that still has stuff from my Tallahassee workshop? That counts as six items, once I’ve put them back where they belong. The pile of frames that Colin Page gave me? That will be eight of today’s items.

Over a week, of course, I’ve managed to put away fifty items. Imperceptibly, order is being restored. More importantly, I’ve not stopped and spent a day cleaning my studio; instead, I’ve painted.

My ten brush strokes took the form of branches on this canvas, which I keep around just for fun.

My problem Tuesday was not just disorder, but worry and distraction about my laptop. That can completely derail me. So, I applied a variation of the Power of Ten to my palette. First, I laid out fresh paints; that always helps. Then I told myself I could make just ten brushstrokes. Voila! I’d eased the transition to real work.

Ten brushstrokes is a great limit when you’re having trouble concentrating. It’s also helpful when you’re confused about how to finish a painting. It makes you stop and think intentionally about each mark you make. That stops you from noodling, which has been the death of many fine paintings. Limit yourself, and see how quickly your mind zeroes in on the real issues.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds

Yes, inconsistency is immature, but that doesn't make it a bad thing.

Rocks and Sea, 1916-19, Edward Hopper, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art


The other day, Bruce McMillan sent out a blog post asking readers to identify an artist. (He kindly mailed me the images, which illustrate this post.) I’m pretty good at art history, especially 20th century American landscape painting, but I could not peg the painter. The drafting style was Wyeth-strong, the composition late Winslow Homer, the paint handling, California Impressionist, the lighting, Rockwell Kent. The overall impact wavered enough that I figured he’d slipped in a few ringers from other artists just to see if we were paying attention.

Sea and Rocky Shore, 1916-19, Edward Hopper, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Instead, he had quoted that preeminent painter of gritty American realism, one every self-respecting painter should be able to identify at fifty paces—Edward Hopper. Man, did I feel foolish.

Harbor Shore, Rockland, 1926, Edward Hopper, courtesy Blanton Museum of Art

Of course, most of these paintings were done before he ‘became’ the Hopper who painted Nighthawks, but surely a painter of his caliber should have some consistency? Actually, not. Many great painters have produced work with wildly different brushwork, drafting and intention over their careers. That’s obvious with modernists like Pablo Picasso, but it’s equally true of masters from antiquity such as Caravaggio.

Sketch of Portland, ME, by Edward Hopper

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s a quote that should be printed and tacked into every art box, because striving for consistency is a trap.

Cove at Ogunquit, 1914, Edward Hopper, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Critics sometimes say that inconsistency is a mark of immaturity—and it should be, because new painters are playful and experimental. That’s a good thing, and something that the rest of us should emulate. We tend to lose our inventiveness as we grow more accomplished. But the greatest painters are not afraid to move beyond what others perceive as good art.

Rocks and Cove, 1929, watercolor, Edward Hopper, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

A lot of treacle has been churned out on the subject of style, including by me. Of course, style is very important in art. The problem is, it’s impossible to teach or control. Style is influenced by your place in history, your aesthetics, what you study and think about, your working process, and—ultimately—your soul.

Rocks and Waves, 1916-19, Edward Hopper, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Style should not be confused with mannerisms. Mannerisms are on the surface; style is internal. An example of a mannerism is palette-knife painting—you can put it on and take it off at will. But if you look at a brilliant palette-knife painter like Cynthia Rosen, you realize there’s far more to her style than the implement she’s using to apply paint. If she started painting with brushes tomorrow, that wouldn’t affect her way of seeing, her use of light, or her color sense.

Sketch of Pulpit Rock, Monhegan, by Edward Hopper

Conscious attempts to develop a style inevitably result in limitation. The artist puts himself into a box from which he cannot escape. The tragic career of the late Thomas Kinkade is an extreme example. The man was not without talent; who knows what he might have painted had he not locked himself into the ghastly pastorals that made his fortune? He died rich but miserable, at age 54 of acute alcohol poisoning, exacerbated by Valium.