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Thursday, April 29, 2021

Best new toy ever!

Even though this truck and I have only been shacking up for a few months, it feels like we’ve known each other forever. We’re soul mates.

Painting from the bed of my truck yesterday. Note the dog in the back window. (Photo courtesy Eric Jacobsen)
I’m a little under 5’6”, which is two inches taller than the average American woman (whoever she is). That makes me, objectively, not short. But I married a tall man. Predictably, all my kids are tall. I’m always craning my neck to natter at them, and bustling along when we walk. It’s given me a complex.

It doesn’t help to paint with Ken DeWaard and Eric Jacobsen. Ken’s nearly a foot taller than me, and Eric’s just a smidge less lofty. For me to paint the view they see, I need to stand on a box. That’s inconvenient. Last week, Ken and I painted a pile of glorious orange lobster buoys. His angle was perfect, but mine was obscured by a kid’s slide.

Three Chimneys, oil on canvasboard, 11X14, $869 unframed, was painted from the bed of my pickup truck this week.

My trip to Wyoming in January was two-fold. I explored a ranch in Cody that I’ll be using as a base for a workshop this September. And I collected a 2010 Toyota Tundra that previously belonged to my pal Jane Chapin.

This truck and I had a history. Jane and I once nearly drove it off a cliff-edge. We then backed out through a thicket of piƱons. It’s only fitting that they’re my scratches now.

I also painted Hermit Peak from its bed. Jane was too cool to paint from a lawn-chair in a pickup truck so she stood in a snowdrift and froze. That day was when I realized that I desperately wanted a pickup truck. It was pure chance that it ended up being the same truck.

Maple, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed, was painted from next to my truck. I did get stuck in the mud and had to use 4WD to get out.

Maine has eco-warriors in their hybrids and sensible Subarus, but get out of the bigger towns and pickup trucks abound. I drove a Prius for 278,000 miles and my son now has it. But the pickup truck provides protective coloration when I’m loitering around docks and country roads. Think of me as a toad blending in with the forest floor.

Plus, it makes me feel really, really tall.

All I need is a cooler and an awning. (Photo courtesy of Eric Jacobsen)

Eric—coincidentally—has the same make and model truck. His has a cap, which is convenient because he never has to put anything away; he just tosses wet paintings inside and they’re there weeks or months later when he feels like finishing them. But the cap means Eric can’t stand in the bed of his truck and paint. That’s a major disadvantage.

Still, they’re awfully cute parked next to each other. We painted at Owls Head this week—me in the bed of my truck, he with his easel set up nearby (making us almost exactly the same height, dammit). It occurred to me that our trucks looked just like cruisers in their little slips in Wilson Harbor. In the evening, yachters would set up their deck chairs, pop beers, and chit-chat across the docks. As a teenager, I sneered. Today, I love the idea.

Fishing shacks at Owls Head, not yet finished.

“All I need is a cooler and an awning,” I told Eric. A bimini top? It would be cute but expensive. A party tent? A ladder rack with a fabric awning attached with Velcro? Extra points if I can find Sunbrella™ in camo.

But wait, there’s more! The jump seat in the back folds up, and the space it leaves is just the right size for a primitive porta-potty. It might not be quite the thing for downtown Portland, but it works just fine in rural Maine.

A bucket with a toilet seat... and tinted windows.

Sigh. Even though this truck and I have only been shacking up for a few months, it feels like we’ve known each other forever. We’re soul mates.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Respecting the picture plane

I was momentarily surprised, because I’m subsumed into the cult of the picture plane and my correspondent isn’t (yet).

The Alaska Range, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1159 unframed

In 1960, art critic Clement Greenberg coined a phrase, “the integrity of the picture plane.” What he meant by picture plane is the slice of space in which the image hangs. There’s three-dimensional reality behind it and in front of it, but for our purposes, all that exists is what’s on that screen.

Since then, an enormous amount has been written supporting or refuting Greenberg’s thesis (which is interesting, wordy and doesn’t concern us here). His critics countered that the artist can do whatever the #$% he wants with the picture plane. (Hey, it was the Sixties.)

But for practical painting purposes, that rectangle of space remains paramount. It has its own life, separate from the things that are depicted on it. It has primacy. That’s why we design paintings to look good in that rectangle, after all.

Blueberry Barrens, oil on canvas, 24X36, $3188 unframed.

I was recently asked, “which do you paint first, the foreground or background?” The question momentarily surprised me. That’s because I’m subsumed into the cult of the picture plane and my interlocutor isn’t (yet).

The answer is: “Neither. Both.”

The primacy of the picture frame overrides the relationships between foreground and background. In modern alla prima painting, objects and non-objects alike are tesserae placed in a mosaic. Background and foreground are developed together because they’re equal parts of the same visual illusion.

Downdraft snow, oil on canvasboard, 9X12, $696 unframed.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an order of operation to oil painting:

  1. Dark to light (to prevent hopeless muddying of color);
  2. Big shapes to small shapes;
  3. Fat over lean (the amount of solvent/oil you’re using in each layer);

Just as there is a general order of operations of watercolor painting:

  1. Underwash;
  2. Broad washes;
  3. Detail
Parrsboro at Dawn, oil on canvasboard, $869 unframed.

But those orders are based on the working properties of paint, not on aesthetic or compositional issues. There may be practical reasons to deviate from these orders, but they were worked out because they give you the best results in the fastest time.

Nowhere does the relative importance of one object in the painting take precedence over another. We dart around the painting and finish it to one level, then to the next, then to the next. We think about passages of light and dark and how they interact to drive the eye. The subconscious mind will generally take care of the detail anyway, returning to those passages and poking at them until they’ve achieved some level of finish.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: controlling edges

Creating hard and soft edges is largely a matter of practice.

In Breaking Storm, the soft edges in the clouds were done by overbrushing with a dry brush. The hard edges in the sails and rigging were done with a flat brush on its side.

The lost-and-found edge is an important design principle, one that every painter should be familiar with. To do it successfully, one must feel confident painting not just shapes but lines. That requires understanding how your brush lays down paint. Edges are one area in which watercolors and oils behave very differently.

A softened edge creates a natural blurring, and it happens often in human perception. We just ignore the edges we’re not interested in. In painting, a soft edge can be achieved by keeping value, hue and saturation close between two shapes, but it’s most often achieved through brushwork.

A hard edge is an area that demands our attention. It should be related to the focal point of a painting. It can be achieved by separating hue, saturation and value, but it’s also a place where effective brushwork is important.

In oil painting, you can lay down a line and fiddle endlessly with its edge, but in watercolor you get only one shot at it (although you can tidy things up a bit after the fact). This is not permission to overpaint endlessly in oils. In either medium, constant tinkering is a sure-fire way to deaden your work.

In either medium, the smaller the brush, the harder the edge. That’s one reason your teachers harp on you to use a bigger brush.

The angle at which you hold your watercolor brush will determine how broken the line is.

In watercolor, the hardness of the edge must be considered in advance.

A truly hard edge is made by working an upright brush slowly across the work, allowing the pigment to flow onto the paper. The more slanted the brush and the less pigment and water, the more broken scumbling will result. This is a beautiful effect, worth practicing.

If you want to soften or blend an edge, you can’t wait until later. Your options are to:

  1. Lay down a line and immediately run clean water along the edge you want to soften;
  2. Work into a prewetted area, letting the paint bleed down along the edge you want to soften;
  3. Create the illusion of softness by unifying passages with an underwash.

Top sample, painted into damp paper with a dry edge at the top. Middle, painted into wet paper with a dry edge at the top. Bottom, edge wetted after painted onto dry paper. 

In the first two techniques, working too slowly will give you bloom (caused by rewetting a partially-dry area) or a hard edge where you don’t want it. A line or shape can have both a hard and a soft edge—just don’t soften the edge on that side of the paper.

A simple exercise in hard and soft edges in watercolor. Yes, kids, try this at home!

In alla prima oil painting, edges need to be married. That means making a shape or silhouette, and then pushing the background color against it. Not doing this will result in anemic shapes. After this is done, the edge can be softened by:

Using a dry brush to manually blur edges;

Introducing the background color into the foreground and vice-versa.

Three Machines, 1963, Wayne Thiebaud, courtesy De Young Museum. Note that he leaves the edges in the background as part of the design.

At times this will produce a halo around the object. I was taught to eliminate that halo. Recently in class, we were looking at paintings by Wayne Thiebaud, and I noticed how often he left that halo as part of his design. Whether or not you elect to brush the halo out, Thiebaud’s paintings vividly demonstrate how to marry the background to the foreground in oil paints.

The hardest, most precise line in alla prima oil painting can be made by using a flat brush on its side. If you’re painting onto a dry surface, you can get a hard, tight line with a rigger or fine brush as well.

Friday, April 23, 2021

The not-so-perfect day

A nor’easter was moving in, the light was hazy, but—oh, the colors!

Approaching Nor'easter, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $1159 unframed.

I met Eric Jacobsen and Bjorn Rundquist on Monday and Tuesday of this week, but on Wednesday, nobody was willing to paint with me. Not that I blamed them; the forecast was awful. Anyway, I wanted to try out my new backpack by hoisting my gear up Beech Hill. It’s the most expensive backpack I’ve ever bought—a Kelty Redwing—but I’ve been using a crossover bag that’s neither big enough nor good for the back.

I have an ultralight pochade box that I made myself. However, it’s fallen out of favor with me in the steady high winds along the Maine coast. It vibrates. So, instead, I took my smallest wooden box and hoped for the best.

Pretty fancy... and heavy.

It would have to be a fast painting. They were already setting snow records in Buffalo and Rochester, and the same weather disturbance was pushing its way to us.

The light was hazy and the clouds were barreling across the sky. It was ‘not a great day for painting,’ but—oh, the colors! There’s something about subdued light that makes the color of early spring just glow. There’s also something about painting something you know. The glimpse of the sod house on Beech Hill makes me happy every time I round that corner in the trail.

I’m so happy to finally be outdoors without pounds of foul-weather gear. Which means it’s time for me to talk seriously about registering for this year’s plein air workshops. Last year was a mixed bag, as my boat trips were canceled. However, I did teach in New Mexico, Florida and Maine. “It was the first time I felt normal since the start of COVID,” one painter told me.

Beach at Friendship, ME, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

This year, registrations for Sea & SkyPecos Wilderness and the September Age of Sail boat trip are all running ahead of normal. There’s still room in the June boat trip—I assume because it’s so close to Maine’s go/no go date. But Captain John says, “we’re a go for sure for 2021,” and he’s the captain, so his word is law.

I’ve added additional workshops this year, so that, no matter what landscape you love, there’s a place for you in my schedule. All of them can be accessed through this link.

And this handsome old tree... maybe I can get back there this afternoon to finish.

AGE OF SAIL, June 13-17 or September 19-23, 2021

Learn to watercolor on the magical, mystical waters of Maine's Penobscot Bay, aboard the historic schooner American Eagle. All materials, berth, meals and instruction included. Captain John has reduced the number of guests, which puts the schooner well within the state’s COVID guidelines. Beginning May 1st, people traveling to Maine from all states will no longer be required to provide a negative test or quarantine. 

SEA & SKY AT ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, August 8-13
Five days of intensive plein air in the quiet corner of America's oldest national park. Lodging and meals included at Schoodic Institute. All levels and media welcome. Schoodic Institute did an exceptional job of facilitating social distancing during last year’s workshop, and I am confident this one will be just as good.

AUTHENTIC WEST: CODY, WYOMING, September 5-10, 2021
Study in an authentic western ranch setting in Yellowstone Country. Five days of intensive plein air, all levels, all media welcome. I’ve reserved a block of rooms at the Hampton Inn, Cody, for guests. That’s just a short distance from the ranch, and the restaurants, museums, and resorts of Cody.

GATEWAY TO PECOS WILDERNESS, September 12-16, 2021
High plains and mountain wilderness, in historic, enchanting New Mexico. Five days of intensive plein air instruction, all media and all levels welcome. This year, I’ve reserved a block of rooms at Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in Pecos. Meals are included, and it’s a quick jaunt to ‘downtown’ Pecos.

RED ROCKS OF SEDONA, ARIZONA, September 26-October 1, 2021
A geological wonderland, with world-class restaurants, galleries, and accommodations. Five days of intensive plein air instruction, all media and all levels welcome. This workshop is offered through the Sedona Arts Center.

And last but certainly not least…

MOSS-DRAPED OAKS IN TALLAHASSEE, FL, January 17-21, 2022.
I’ll be returning to gracious Tallahassee for another great session of painting through Natalia Andreeva Studio. We had a great time last year!

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Art and fear

Great art doesn't spring fully-formed from the minds of geniuses. It is made incrementally.

Prom shoes, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. Every time a student tells me "I don't like still life," I point out that it is the best training ground for painting available to us.

Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland is a book I frequently recommend to students. The title is misleading because it’s less about the insecurities that stalk the artist and more about the reiterative, plodding process that produces great art. If the book does anything, it shreds the Cult of Genius that has dogged the art world since the Enlightenment.

Among the silliest distinctions in the world of art is that between so-called ‘fine art’ and ‘fine craft.’ Prior to the Age of Enlightenment, artists were craftsmen. It was only with the Romanticism that artists developed the slight stink of intellectualism.

Dish of Butter, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. 

Art & Fear comes down firmly on the side of craft. Art gets made by ordinary people like you and me, who work at our craft regularly. We chip away at a problem, and we master it, and we are content… until our minds throw up a new problem. We then repeat the process, and somehow, in all that indefinable chaos, there’s progress.

Nevertheless, there is fear in the art process. I was first introduced to this concept at the Art Students League, where my instructor gleefully announced to her new students, “You’re all terrified!” I’m naturally pugnacious, so my reaction was to deny that, loudly. It’s taken a long time for me to realize that some of my stalling mechanisms are, indeed, fear at work.

Back it up, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. Still life does not have to be about elegant old dishware. 

Fear is one reason artists have studios full of unfinished work. We can either leave it in this state, where it has potential, or finish it so that all its shortcomings are revealed.

A healthy respect for the process can be a good thing, when it stops us from charging in and making stupid mistakes. When I was much younger, I did a surrealistic dreamscape of young mother on a broken-down farm. I was stumped trying to marry my currently-realistic style with the theme. I made the mistake of consulting a professional for a critique. “It looks like an imitation Chagall,” she said. I went home and covered it in a froth of bad paint. When I came to my senses, the original painting was irretrievable.

But fear can quickly become corrosive. I see it when new students are unable to engage in the exercises that I set in front of them, or constantly answer every suggestion with, “yes, but…”

Tin Foil Hat, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. There was no point to this when I painted it, but it's since become my self-portrait.

It is not the beginners who have this difficulty, but people who have achieved some mastery of painting. They have a hard nut of competence that they hold tight against their hearts. To polish and shape it, they have to be able to hold it at arm’s length, but they can’t—they’re afraid that examining it will destroy something vital to their self-image.

I’m speaking as their soul-sister in this, by the way. It’s something that’s taken me a long time to get over.

Not that we ever really do get over our insecurity. Last week, Eric Jacobsen showed me a Charles Movalli painting he particularly admired. “That’s it! I quit,” I said. Of course, I’d said the same thing the week before that, and the week before that, too. In the face of great accomplishment, we are often momentarily cowed.

The difference—as Bayles and Ormond point out in their book—is that we sit back down at the easel and start again. And again. And again. That’s how great art happens.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: creating depth in your paintings

Paintings with depth engage our minds more and keep us looking longer.

Sunlight on the Coast, 1890, Winslow Homer, courtesy Toledo Museum of Art

Pictorial depth in a painting, is—of course—not real. It’s an illusion, suggested by cues that help the observer translate a 2D image to a 3D space. These cues include shadows, size, and lines that dwindle into the horizon.

Since the human mind is programmed to perceive depth, the artist doesn’t have to work terribly hard to engage his viewer. We can break the tools we use into three distinct approaches, however, and then see how we can move beyond the most obvious into more challenging approaches.

The first is to create receding bands of content. Larger objects create a screen through which we see a layer of smaller objects behind them. The human eye records this as distance. Painterly marks decrease in size along with objects, the farther we travel into the painting.

Tired Salesgirl on Christmas Eve, date unknown, Norman Rockwell, courtesy Christies. This is the acme of layered planes for effect; we don't even notice that there's no real perspective.

I had a painting teacher who kvetched that this was all Norman Rockwell ever did, to which I responded that he did it very well for a guy who was churning out weekly magazine covers. I’ll cede the point though. This is the least difficult design concept, and it can prove static, especially when it takes the form of a lonely tree posed against a far hill.

The second method is to establish perspective with lines that move into the distance. This is sometimes simplified into the idea of “a path into the painting.” This may not be a literal path but rather a design armature. In paintings like this, we are seeing over the objects, and they recede into distance, drawing us in with them.

High Surf Along the Laguna Coast, Edgar Payne, before 1947, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The two paintings above, by Winslow Homer and Edgar Payne, illustrate the difference. Homer has established his design with walls of water and rock, which we’re allowed to peek over. In Payne’s painting, we’re above the roiling surf, and we follow it back into the distance.

For this latter kind of painting to work, the artist must have excellent drawing chops, because the relative sizes of the objects, their placement, their angle, and—above all—the negative shapes, must be spot on. So, if you want to graduate from the first kind of perspective to the second, keep practicing your drawing.

The third kind of perspective is atmospheric. This relies on some general optics rules that are based on the interference of bouncing light and dust in the atmosphere:

  1. Far objects are lower in contrast and generally lighter in color.
  2. Far objects are generally lower in chroma than near objects, because:
  3. Warm colors drop out over distance.
First the reds drop out, next, the yellows drop out, leaving us with blue-violet. Which is how we end up with “purple mountain majesty” as we approach the Rockies, or did, before excessive growth on the Front Range polluted the skies.

Payne Lake, before 1948, Edgar Payne, courtesy Steven Stern Fine Arts

Psychologists have researched the subject of distance perception (of course) and it turns out that depth perception is linked to our higher thinking. That’s no surprise, since visual cues are very basic for survival. From that, we can construe that paintings with depth engage our minds more and keep us looking longer.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Five half-finished paintings in search of a conclusion

The beautiful warmth of Wednesday was just a dream. It’s still April in Maine, and we all know April is the cruellest month.

Not done.

On Wednesday, I met Peter Yesis and Ken DeWaard at Spruce Head. In the warm spring air, it felt like we were playing hooky. The neighborhood dogs trotted over to welcome us. There was a lobster boat on the pier, and the fisherman by the docks was working on his traps. Two Canada geese gamboled in the shallows. Perfect peace, and intimations of summer at long last.

I must have disconnected my common sense in the soft air, because I got there to realize I’d left my tripod at home. There are two absolute necessities for oil painting—an easel and white paint. Your other tools are helpful, but you can usually make a workaround solution. Forget your brushes? Take up palette-knife painting. Forget a canvas? One of your friends will have a spare.

Not done.

I improvised by putting my pochade box on a chair and balancing myself in front of it on Ken’s camp stool. It was wobbly but effective. However, Sandy Quang was meeting us after she stopped for a routine COVID test. The lab is near my house. She stopped by and collected my tripod.

I didn’t feel like grinding anything down to its final solution, so what I painted were sketches—sketches that can join the others sitting on my workbench in search of conclusion. Not that any of them need too much—a flourish here, a bit of light there. The overall structure is fine.

Not done.

Sandy peeled off in early afternoon, and then Peter left. I realized that I had to make the dump before it closed at 4 PM. Ken was starting his sixth sketch, but I was happy with my three, because I had all day Thursday before the weather closed in. I got the trash to the town dump with five minutes to spare.

Except, as so often happens, Thursday didn’t work out at all way I’d planned. I got to Rockport harbor, sat down and drew a composition I quite liked. Meanwhile, the boatyard crew was lowering a sloop into the water. I took a phone call while I waited to see where the boat would end up. “As soon as I start this painting in earnest, they’ll move that boat right into this slip,” I said. That’s always the way with boat paintings—they come and go.

Not done.

It turned out to not be a problem. This time I’d managed to leave my pochade box at home. By the time I drove home to get it, the tide had risen enough that my sketch was meaningless. Not to worry; the tide hits the same point four times a day. I’ll catch it on the flip side. Maybe by then the mast will be stepped on that beautiful winter visitor from Stonington, ME.

Later, I had some explanation for my absentmindedness. In the afternoon, I was laid low by a terrific headache and low-grade fever. I doubt it’s COVID, as I’ve had all my shots. I’m more concerned about Lyme, since I found a tick in my head after being in the Hudson Valley over the weekend. Yes, I’m calling my PCP. This is, sadly, routine in the northeast.

Meanwhile, we’re back to cold, dark and irritable weather. It won’t get out of the 30s today, and there’s snow on the forecast for New England. The beautiful warmth of Wednesday was just a dream. It’s still April in Maine, and we all know April is the cruellest month.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Stop playing it safe

I’m willing to look like a fool for art. Are you?

Channel marker, 9x12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

I did a set of long demos in my classes this week. I worked from two different snapshots, one for each class. I’d never looked at them before. In fact, I chose them because they didn’t have any obvious structure.

It was up to my class to create that structure, so I didn’t crop or make any choices in advance. (To make the demo meaningful to all my students, I did each painting in oils and watercolor simultaneously. That’s hard.) The goal was to give my students a broad view of the overall processes of painting, from start to finish.

They said they learned the most from the many places where I dithered. At one point, I said something like, “stupid, stupid, stupid!” One student particularly liked hearing that; she thought she was alone in making choices she later regretted.

Fog Bank, 14x18, oil on canvasboard, $1275 unframed.

Another said that the most instructive part of the demo was the moment I took a rag to an entire passage of the oil painting. (My correction turned out to be a mistake. Stupid, stupid, stupid.)

The actual painting results were mediocre. But great paintings were never my goal. Instead, we worked our way through the process of a painting as a team, discussing our questions and dilemmas.

Home farm 2, oil on canvas, 20X24, $2898 framed.

I received this email from a student who wishes to remain anonymous:

“A couple of weeks ago, on a whim, I signed up for another zoom painting class with an artist I follow on social media... The most important thing I have come to realize is how much I value your approach to teaching and how much better your class is. I enjoy your [art] history lesson and how it wraps around the weekly lesson. We all work from our own still life set-ups or reference photos making our paintings more personal.

“In this other class, I was sent a reference photo (which didn't particularly interest me) and we all painted the same thing. During class, there is a lot of talk about which particular colors were used in which particular spots. Questions like these make me nuts.

“We have to send a photo of our painting and there is a critique of everyone's work so we are looking at basically eight versions of the same painting for two hours. Tedious, at best. In the end, I feel like I have spent time and materials on a painting that is not really mine since I don't own the reference photo and I know there are eight other versions of the same painting out there.”

Home Port, oil on canvas, 18X24, $2318 framed.

This student is a graphic designer by trade, so when I saw her painting, I was amazed at how boring it was. Her work usually sparks with arresting design and quirky ideas.  But here she was working from someone else’s idea, and all the thinking was already done. There’s little to be learned in that.

On Monday, I wrote that I don’t think canned painting demos are very helpful. A shrewd painter rehearses these performances. He has already made the critical decisions before he ever lifts a brush in public. This creates an impression of mastery and confidence, but it’s a falsehood. The real process of painting is all in the choices.

Art’s greatest enemy is safety. That may seem strange coming from a painter who works in landscape—surely the least risky of genres. But the risks I’m talking about are in composition, structure, color choices, and brushwork, not in content. The best painters take chances all the time. They mess things up and toss them in the trash. The public will only see 10-20% of our starts. The rest are, to us, failures.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: how to succeed in painting

Truthfully, how much does your painting ever advance from curling up on the couch and watching painting videos?

Early spring in the boatyard, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Every successful artist I know has a process. That means we work up a painting in pretty much the same way every time. These processes are different in the details, but the same in the fundamentals. Over the past two weeks I’ve been tinkering with my process. I’m checking to see if there’s a more efficient way.

I borrowed a stick of charcoal from Ken Dewaard on Thursday to set up hash marks like he does. “I use a little charcoal,” he laughed, when my canvas looked as if I’d grilled a turkey on it.

The point isn’t whether Ken’s process is better than mine, or whether I can learn it—of course I can. It’s not whether I can hit hash marks on a canvas. It’s whether I would see spatial relationships differently with a different system of marking. The jury’s out on that one; I haven’t been doing it enough to tell.

Early spring in the boatyard (2), oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, available.

Note that I’m tinkering, not doing major surgery. That’s because painters all end up doing their work in a specific way:

  1. They figure out a composition based on line, form, and value masses;
  2. They transfer that to their paper or canvas;
  3. They paint colors in a predetermined order, established with the invention of their medium.

In oils that protocol is:

  1. Fat over lean;
  2. Dark to light;
  3. Big shapes to smaller shapes.

In watercolor, the order of operations is:

  1. Washes to detail;
  2. Dark over light (not written in stone).

Acrylics, being a new medium, are still in flux, but if you’re using them as a solid medium, stick with the oil-painting protocol.

Mountain spring, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.

When I was taking harpsichord lessons many years ago, I noticed that introducing a new technique would make me forget, momentarily, how to play. Asking my left hand to do something new would make my right hand suddenly go stupid. I don’t know why the human mind is programmed like this, but it happens in painting, too. Toss in one unfamiliar concept and things that are routinely easy suddenly feel terribly complicated.

That’s why practice is so important. Repeat that new technique until it’s integrated into your thinking. That usually happens just in time for your teacher to throw something new at you.

It’s also why good instruction is so infernally difficult. The student is constantly left feeling off-kilter. But somehow it works, and better musicians and painters are created in the chaos.

Spring cleaning, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Mary Byrom and I recently discussed why we hate canned videos and long demos. Neither of us use them much, because they demand no effort from our students. Truthfully, how much does your painting ever advance from curling up on the couch and watching painting videos?

Having said that, I’m about to do a long demo in both my classes this week. But it will be interactive. My students will be making the decisions; I’ll just be the trained monkey putting them on canvas and paper.

On that note, there’s still an opening in my Monday night class starting tonight. Email me if you’re interested.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Spring finally comes to Maine

This point, where charcoal meets paper, is where a painting’s future lies.

Spring on Beech Hill, 8x10, available. Dark skies may not give you great shadows, but they deepen color saturation.

Yesterday was the first truly lovely day of the year, with soft still air, limpid light, and a hint of color in the bare trees. I had already chained myself to the mast of updating my website so I met Ken DeWaard at Spruce Head in late afternoon. As if ordered up by some great old Hollywood director, golden light poured over the fishing shacks. It was so composed and serene that even a novice could have painted a great painting.

I, therefore, made a hash of the whole process.

My struggling composition. Ouch.

I’ve been teaching an intensive series on composition. I swear it’s scrambled my brain, since this is the third painting in a row where my composition has been utter dreck. I tell my students that my first rule is “don’t be boring,” and then I keep breaking that rule myself.

I swear, the next time I’m having one of these brain cramps, I’m going to just copy off Ken’s panel. It’d be easier on him. When Carol isn’t happy with her painting, Carol whines. After listening to me for what felt like an hour, he asked a salient and obvious question: what was my painting about?

That stopped me cold.

“Well,” I hesitated, “I think what interests me is that collection of blue bins on the dock.” That’s where I should have stopped and redrawn the whole thing, cropping in much closer, but I didn’t. I was still seduced by the grandeur all around me.

Boatyard, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, available. This painting is growing on me.

This point, where charcoal meets paper, is where a painting’s future lies. All the seagulls I could tack in there later, all the beautiful brushwork I could slather over the canvas, can’t save a teetering composition.

Everyone has a mistake they make repeatedly. Mine is always trying to cram more than one painting onto a canvas. “Respect the picture plane,” I tell my students, and then proceed to not do so myself.

Then there's this painting of fishing shacks that I haven't finished yet, but I think has promise.

In this case, I was trying to shove an entire world of manmade and heavenly beauty into one small rectangle. But I can tell you in words that it was sublime: ducks quacking in the distance, the tide beginning to trickle in from the far channels, the perfect still reflections in the water, even the pungent smell of saltwater soil awakening from spring. It was all dancing deliriously in front of me, and I couldn’t push it all onto canvas fast enough.

The beauty of the artist’s life is the number of redos we get. I have to go to New York today, but Spruce Head will still be there when I come home. I can take a deep breath and try again, and maybe, just maybe, I won’t be overwhelmed by the perfection of it all.

You might think I find all this failure depressing, but actually I see it as a hopeful sign. When I suddenly start regressing, it means I’m subconsciously incorporating something new in my painting. I can’t wait to see where I go.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Signs of recovery?

The post-COVID world is uncharted territory. Navigating it successfully will require local knowledge and lots of common sense.

Blueberry Barrens, 24X36, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas

Easter Sunday was the anniversary of my arrival back from our ill-starred trip to Argentina. I left one America and returned to another. It was a nation largely without toilet paper. A year later, the phrase ‘flatten the curve’ is mostly forgotten. We still don’t know how we’re going to reintegrate our society, but the possibility seems to be there.

My mother was a fan of investment guru Peter Lynch He was famous for the phrase, “invest in what you know.” Lynch believed in the street-smarts of Average Joe. He thought individual investors were potentially more capable stock-pickers than fund managers, because they could see the impact of new products on their day-to-day lives. (On the other hand, he famously bought Dunkin’ Donuts stock because he liked their coffee, so he wasn’t always right.)

Bridle path, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Any small gallery or artist in business after a year of COVID is navigating uncharted waters. Our local knowledge and our street smarts are going to stand us in good stead, if we listen to that inner voice called ‘common sense.’

I started teaching virtually on April 28 with the coaching and encouragement of my friend Mary Byrom. The following month, I bought an annual subscription to Zoom. It’s had a tremendous return on investment. For most of the past year, my two classes have been waitlist-only.

Best buds, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, available.

Lynch’s worldview was, in fact, borne out in a small way in this tiny niche business. Long before the big art publishers realized the market for virtual learning, teachers like Mary and me were teaching on Zoom.

As I approach the one-year anniversary of my virtual classes, I’m seeing a slight softening of demand. My street smarts are tingling again.

  • Is this the beginning of a return to normal, where we take classes in real life?
  • Have bigger vendors vacuumed up the demand for virtual instruction?
  • Does the approach of good weather mean people would rather paint outside?
In a slippery landscape, we must tread carefully. We should understand why there’s a shift before we start reacting (if indeed any response is necessary). But I’m cautiously hopeful that this is a tiny step toward normalcy, where we can go to school, church, and each other’s’ homes with the free-and-easy nonchalance of the past.

By the way, there are two openings in Monday night’s session starting next week. If you’re interested there’s more information here.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: designing value masses

How could I have even taken a photo this bad, let alone make a painting out of it?

Early November: North Greenland, 1932, Rockwell Kent, courtesy the Hermitage.

The focal points of a painting are not necessarily the subject. In Rockwell Kent’s Early November: North Greenland, above, our eyes go first to the iceberg in the foreground. Kent has made it the most luminous, warmest part of the scene, and set it off against the briny depths. Next, we look at the hillside behind, which is almost as bright as the iceberg. Only after that does our eye travel to the human activity at the bottom. Here we’re arrested by an ageless story: man wrestling against the vast power of nature for his very survival. We spend a long time looking at these tiny fishermen, which we wouldn’t have done had they been what we noticed first.

Kent has borrowed a technique beloved of Pieter Bruegel the Elder four hundred years earlier. In his Census at Bethlehem, all the bustle and contrast of the midfield drive our eyes down to the least important part of the painting, the corner. There the scene is laid for the birth of Christ. Just as in the Bible story, this great event happens in an unimportant place.

The painter must get used to thinking in terms of composition instead of subjects. Every representational painting has (we hope) a subject, but if we just drop that subject in the center of the canvas, there will be no drama or order to the painting.

Why did we read Rockwell Kent’s painting in that order? Because the light and dark masses drove our eyes inexorably through the painting in a planned way.

Often the beginning painter is fixated on the details, but it’s the value masses that will ultimately carry the painting. Start by figuring out a way to stop seeing detail. I’m slightly nearsighted; I take off my glasses and detail dissolves. Those of you blessed with better eyesight have to squint. But if you do so, you’ll realize that you can easily fool the brain into seeing big shapes rather than detail. Minor differences in values disappear.

A really bad photo of a cypress swamp near Marion, Alabama, taken by yours truly.

It’s a little more difficult when working with reference photos, where the detail is always there, teasing you. Above, I’ve posted a snapshot I took in a swamp in Alabama. In terms of subject matter, it interests me; I’m from the north where we don’t have trees with knees. In terms of composition, it’s awful. How could I have even taken a photo this bad, let alone make a painting out of it?

I have to address three questions:

  1. Where does the visual strength in these cypress knees lie? There’s power in almost any image, although you sometimes have to dig for it.
  2. How can the picture plane be broken into light and dark passages?
  3. How will I crop my picture to strengthen the composition?
Shapes that I can base a painting on.

I identified two things in this cypress swamp that are powerful: repetition and reflection. I based my sketch on them, but I could just have easily emphasized the diagonal shadows. The photo is peripheral in this design phase; it was there primarily to give me a source for shapes and motifs. My initial drawing looks more like a Clyfford Still painting than anything ‘real’, and that’s a good thing, since it means my focus was on design, not facts. Get that right and it’s a relatively simple matter to apply realism to the stronger abstract masses.

Looking at this on the computer, I really wish I hadn't chosen the crop I did. I'm blaming the lack of coffee and the dog, who's begging for a walk.

Will it paint? Not with that crop, but it's an easy enough fix when I'm still at the sketch stage.

Give me back that breathing space! (And sorry about the terrible photography.)

It’s Easter Monday, or Dyngus Day, as we observe in Buffalo, NY. The dog is pestering me, and I have things to do and places to go. But for now, I have a pattern of lights and darks upon which I can hang a painting.