Homer’s “Wine-Dark Sea”

Heavy Weather, done for now.

Occasionally, scholars get themselves tied up in knots over Homer’s “wine-dark sea.” The Aegean is just as blue as any other sea, and there are many theories about what Homer (or whoever actually wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey) was thinking: it was discolored by red marine algae, Homer was color-blind, the Greeks drank wine that was actually blue, or they didn’t have words to describe the deep blue-green of the sea.

There are times when the ocean just looks ominously dark, and that’s what I think he meant. The wine-dark sea is, to me, Prussian Blue dulled with Burnt Sienna—an unfathomable darkness.

Occasionally, optics can make the ocean look reddish. I took this photo off Sandy Hook, NJ.

It’s very easy to anthropomorphize sailboats. Still, I was startled to realize that Heavy Weather is an autobiographical painting. It is me skittering over the wine-dark sea.

“That should make it therapeutic to paint,” my friend B. said. I don’t really think so, but realizing it is autobiographical made it very easy for me to reach through the painting to correct its fundamental problem.
Heavy weather, increasing the seas.
My cousin Antony is a dedicated sailor. He got right to the issue when he said, “I would expect a lot more white water around if you only had a storm jib up.” Reference photos have a way of flattening hills, mountains, vistas—and raging seas. I needed to feel the water as a surging force, and then paint it as such. Once I realized what I was painting, that was a snap.
This is exploratory, and there are qualities that are very tentative. I have no problem painting water en plein air, but I need a little more assurance to get the same insouciance from reference photos, especially when I don’t have any particularly good ones.
Heavy weather, underpainting.
I’m going to revisit this same subject in a few weeks. But before that happens, I’m off to Maine to do some research for next summer. I’m planning to freeze off my ears so that when you come to Schoodic to paint next August, it will be a perfect trip!

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

The sad truth about obscenity

My pal Stu Chait and I did a show at RIT last year that ended with early closure because of my nude figures. I’ve long since moved on, but Rob Curry made a video of the opening and I just got a copy of it.

Despite its abrupt and ignominious end, it was a great show and I hope you enjoy the video.
I’m sorry that I live in a time and place where it’s possible for nudity to offend, especially with so much unschooled dreck passing for art in the academic world. 
Submission, 24X20, by Carol L. Douglas. This is one of the works in our closed-down show. Too bad it was silenced by censorship, because it is certainly ‘relevant’.
We live in oddly bifurcated times. We not only tolerate but glorify the cardinal sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. On the other hand, we are leery of serious conversations, we don’t like serious effort, and we insult, vilify and occasionally massacre those with whom we disagree. A god and a morality that’s big enough to command respect ought to be big enough to brush off criticism.

I may never have wanted to read Charlie Hebdo, but I sure as heck think artists ought to be able to say or think what they want without threat of censorship or worse.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Having some ‘work’ done

Most celebrities are chary about admitting they’re having plastic surgery. I’ve decided to bore you with all the details.

It’s called ptosis, and it can be fixed with crutches or surgery.
Years ago I decided that I’d never have plastic surgery. I didn’t want to take a chance that my daughters would one day have to admit, “My mom died having a boob job.” So the first time my ophthalmologist suggested that I needed my eyes ‘lifted’, I just laughed. My father’s eyes were hooded, my grandmother’s eyes were hooded; if they could live with them, so could I.
Until now I thought those heavy eyelids made a great sun visor. I guess not.
Nonetheless, I’ve been having increasing trouble seeing, and that’s not good for an artist. Although I have symptoms of cataracts, my ophthalmologist tells me that’s not the problem. Yesterday I took a field-of-vision test. It proved to me that my droopy eyelids really are causing less light to reach my eyes. (Hopefully, my insurance company will be equally convinced.) So very shortly I’m gonna let a man with a knife mess with my lovely face.
I never had a visible eyelid.
My grandmother, father, siblings, and three of my four children all have that epicanthal fold, which is a trait more commonly seen in Asians. It was no problem when I was eight, but at 55, the skin on my lids has fallen forward and is covering my pupil.
Why do some Northern Europeans have that Mongol eye? Some speculate that the layer of fat above the eye protects it from extreme cold–and that Renee Zellweger recently had the same eye surgery to disguise her ethnic eyes. (Maybe she was just having trouble seeing, too.)
It will take about a week to recover, during which time I plan to listen to books on tape. But in the meantime, I need to zip up to Maine to do some reconnoitering for next year’s workshop. 

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Heavy weather

Heavy Weather, underpainting, by Carol L. Douglas
For this painting, I am trying to envision a sailboat being hit broadside by a large wave, with the question of whether it will capsize or right itself left unanswered.
My own sailing has been seriously curtailed for decades. That means that if I have questions about what a boat might do under sail, I have to consult an expert. My go-to guy is my cousin Antony. Not only does he get to sail in the southern Indian Ocean, but he’s in a totally different time zone, so hopefully he will answer my questions while I sleep.
The Gulf Stream, 1899, by Winslow Homer.
This morning I was looking for photos of boats in heavy weather. I came across the following, by a blogger who identifies himself only as Joe:
Sometimes the sea can be a very scary place.

A very, very scary place.

Before you undertake a voyage to adventure, make sure you are well trained, have some real sailing experience, and know how to survive if things go wrong. Believe me things can go wrong. Thank God I have my Navy training.

Fishermen at Sea, 1796, J.M.W. Turner
Don’t assume that the guy sitting in his flight suit on the ready alert is going to come and rescue you. You might be out of range.

For God’s sake, learn how to read the weather!

For home work, I made my sailing students keep a notebook chronicling the daily weather. It had to have the forecast from the newspaper with their own observations.

The Fog Warning, 1885 by Winslow Homer
That might be a great idea for my painting students, too.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

The Linchpin

Girl falling into fountain while texting, 6X8, oil on canvas
Years ago I had a large brush-pile in my backyard, left over from clearing trees. I would have burned it where it sat, except it was too close to the woods for safety. As the greenwood decayed, it slumped into a solid, stinking mass. I pulled and yanked but got nowhere. After hours of clipping, cutting, shifting and swearing, I was about to quit, when something shifted and the whole thing just came apart.
Beak! Boss! 6X8, oil on canvas
Anyone who’s ever sewn knows that the last seam you put in when you’re overtired will be wrong. And I can’t count how many times I’ve done a computer project only to realize when I was almost finished that there was a faster, easier way to do it.
Art has a steep learning curve because we’re often doing things we’ve never done before. A lot of our time seems to bear no fruit. But stagnation and even falling backward are an important part of the process.
Baby Monkey Riding on a Pig #2 (Abi’s Opossum),  6X8, oil on canvas
Every morning I spend about ten seconds posting my blog pictures on Pinterest. I get the occasional note that something has been repinned, but in general it doesn’t feel like anyone is paying that much attention. Yet I recently got a note that I had more than 26K Pinterest hits in 2014.

Esther is the one of the two Bible books that has no star turn for God. It seems to be a series of human interactions, the majority of which go pretty badly for Esther and her people.  But a seemingly insignificant thing happens—Ahasuerus can’t sleep. The story his courtier uses to put him to sleep turns out to be the pin which releases the salvation of the Jewish people. The events are all worldly, but the net result is miraculous.
Baby Monkey Riding on a Pig #1 (with gumdrops), 6X8, oil on canvas
All of which is to say that our human perception of progress is exceedingly narrow. So keep plugging. You never know when you’ll pull the linchpin.
Pull Up Your Big Girl Panties, 6X8, oil on canvas
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Hand over fist

Unfinished, by Carol L Douglas, 16X20, oil on canvas. (The color is distorted because it was dark when I shot this.)
Over the past three years, I have become enamored of the luminist paintings of Fitz Henry Lane. That doesn’t mean I want to paint like him, but I love the space and light in his paintings. I started this boat painting with him in mind, but I did not look at his work. I wanted his technique to suffuse my understanding, rather than push me toward painting like him.
If I’m unsure about the composition, I compare it to this grid I learned in a workshop taught by Steven Assael. 
Sailboats are elegant, and they glide like living creature across the sea. I generally paint them at dock because it is extremely difficult to paint them en plein airin motion, (although I did give it a try at Rye in 2013).
My underpainting. The sky is a complete fabrication. I need to recapture some of the bluntness of this when I finish the painting.
 Last summer, Howard Gallagher of Camden Falls Gallery took Lee Boyntonand me out to see the start of the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta . (It’s a great gallery owner who cares that much for his painters.) It made me passionately want to paint boats in motion.
My reference photo, taken at the start of the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta.
On Monday, I wrote about consistencyand how your style is ultimately your brand. A reader asked how one can experiment, grow and change while still being consistent. Artists know that the creative process never ends; you wrestle through one technical problem only to be faced by another.
Ironically, that was the precise problem I found myself facing. I went back to first principles. I drew and drew the boat until I was confident about its proportions. Since I was unsure of how to divide the space, I used a grid taught by Steven Assael.
Boston Harbor was painted by Fitz Henry Lane around 1850. 
The end result taps into Lane’s luminism, but is by no means a slavish copy. It is both consistent with my work and yet it explores new material. It’s not finished, but it is a good start.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

An interstate runs through it

Delaware Water Gap, by Carol L. Douglas. This is almost the only paintable vista left since US 80 was built.
Rumor has it that I’m going to New Jersey on Friday. I love New Jersey, but I’ve seen an awful lot of it this month. All this travel is cutting into my painting time. However, I will drive through the Delaware Water Gap, which is a favorite place and always a great mystery to me.
US 80 owns the Delaware Water Gap now.
A water gap is an Appalachian phenomenon, where a river is so old that it predates the lifting and folding of the landscape, and therefore it cuts across a mountain range. Water being so malleable and rock being so hard, it’s difficult to see how this happens, but the evidence is there on those folded, rocky scarps. Water gaps are particularly common in the eastern part of Pennsylvania.
The Delaware Water Gap, 1861, George Inness
US Interstate 80 runs through the Delaware Water Gap now, making it difficult to find a good painting vantage point. I’ve painted several times from along the river’s edge itself. That doesn’t give you the panorama that you would have if you stood right on the pavement (which would make for a very short painting career). There is an overlook on the New Jersey side that might make for a good long-distance painting, but I’ve never hit the right combination of lighting and sufficient time. It isn’t going to happen in the chilling weather we have this week.
On the Delaware River, 1861-1863, George Inness
George Inness is particularly associated with the Delaware Water Gap. His paintings are a bucolic reminder of a time when tractor trailers didn’t own this particular American treasure.
The Delaware Water Gap, 1857, George Inness
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Paint what you love

Daddy’s little helper, oil on Belgian linen, 14X18, by Carol L. Douglas
When I’ve laid off painting for a while, I “play scales” to limber up. Usually that’s in the form of a still life, but yesterday I decided to paint my grandson, Jake. Jake is three months old, and painting babies is decidedly out of my comfort zone. But if you want to be energized as an artist, paint what you love.
Yesterday’s post about consistency sparked a lively discussion on Facebook. Cindy Zaglin said, “I’ve been told people should be able to look at a group of work and know it’s yours (or someone else’s.) But I like the freedom of experimenting and sometimes a piece will not look like my other work. I wonder how to marry ‘brand’ and experimentation.”
As always, I start with an oil grisaille. The gridding is because I needed to doublecheck the proportions of that massive head. Even so, in the final rendering, I couldn’t believe it, and I narrowed his head slightly (and incorrectly).
Cindy doesn’t have to worry; her work is iconic and highly recognizable. She has wide latitude in subject because her style is rock solid. That doesn’t mean she hasn’t grown and changed in the decade I’ve known her. The important thing is that those changes were incremental, not a frenzied trying on of different techniques.
If you can put into concrete terms what is unique about your paint handling, then you probably don’t have a style, but an affectation. In other words, “I always leave big patches of raw canvas showing,” would be an affectation, whereas, “I start off intending to be super careful but inevitably a fury takes over and I’m left with this mess” is probably more of a mature style.
No matter what I am painting, I approach it the same way. Same primer, same brushes, same underpainting, same pigments, same medium. For this reason, my portrait of Jake is stylistically linked to my paintings of sailboats at Camden Harbor, even though the subjects are worlds apart. And of course, this painting is slyly political, as so many of my paintings are. (I like the quaint idea of fathers married to babies’ mothers.)
After the gridding, I filled in masses, and from there worked in more detail. In short, the usual, regardless of the subject.
“Brand is both an identifier and a trap,” said Jane Bartlett. “I’ve seen celebrated artists who are trapped by what they have created and become known by, especially painters. The audience they built leaves the moment significant changes are made either in subject matter or paint application. It’s as though they are starting over. The loss of audience drives them back to what they had been doing and often to boredom.”
I think of that as the Hello Kitty-ism of art. Tom Otterness’ The Creation Myth, at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery, is a case in point. It’s interchangeable with all his other public works. There are, sadly, too many visual artists who have commodified themselves in this way. They may as well be stamping out engine blocks at Ford.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.


I’m taking an online marketing class from Jason Horejs. It’s free* and so far I think it’s been pretty good. In today’s lesson he spoke about consistency. He’s interested in it from a marketing standpoint: it’s easier to sell work that hangs together, that’s instantly recognizable as being from one artist. This, he points out, is your ‘brand’.

I’m illustrating this post with four paintings by famous masters. I’m sure any of you art-history pros can identify the artists without breaking a sweat. Now, extend that lesson to your own work, and you can see what Horejs is driving at.
As a teacher, I see consistency as a mark of maturity and mastery. All young painters copy; it’s part of the learning process. In so doing, their style tends to waver.
To some degree a certain amount of copying is unavoidable. If your students use the same pigments, the same primer, the same brushes, the same medium as you—well, to a degree their painting is going to look like yours. Still, they need to move past that and find their authentic voice.
Early in my painting education, I took a class from a mediocre teacher. I was having trouble marrying the edges of my paints, and that left big thick lines. “That’s your style,” he exclaimed. No; that was someone else’s style, and for me it was a phase. If I’d followed his advice, I could have ended up being one of those people who jumps from style to style without ever developing my own voice.
Style is not something you apply to your painting. It’s what’s left over when you’ve stripped as many mistakes as you can out of your painting. It’s what happens when you try to look at something and represent it as honestly as you can. If you approach style like that, instead of saying, “I want to paint like so-and-so” you will get to consistency a lot faster.
* With the very minor exception of his book from Amazon, which hardly broke the bank.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

The works above are:
Water Lilies, Claude Monet, 1917-19
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, 1601-02
Dedham Lock and Mill,John Constable, 1820
My Egypt, Charles Demuth, 1927

Don’t knock it until you try it

Baby Jake, tiny sketch by me while he slept in my lap.

There is a meme panning ugly Renaissance babies. Every time it pops up, I’m reminded that the posters have most likely never painted a baby from life.

Most of my successful artist pals are childless. This makes perfect sense in the modern world, for fine arts is a career path that requires long hours for little remuneration, and that often requires travel or living in a child-hostile place like NYC. This means that children and motherhood are generally not subjects for serious modern painting, except in portraiture.

I’ve done two baby portraits, and both were done from photos. Babies wiggle, they have unreliable schedules, and when they’re not sleeping, they’re often hungry or upset about something inscrutable.

Tiny gesture drawing of baby Jake. His center of gravity is certainly his bottom, although that head weighs a lot, too.
This weekend I had my infant grandson with me. I’d hoped to paint him during my class, but there were too many students. After class, he and I sat down to rest, and he fell asleep on my lap. I was able to fish a tiny (3.5X5”) sketchbook off the coffee table with my spare hand, and do the attached sketches.

A fast sketch of Jake’s wonderful face before he twisted away again. It’s really hard to get the baby head’s proportions right.
When we do gesture drawings in class I tell my students to look for the “axis of power” in the figure—the place from which the subject’s motion is springing. Usually that’s the pelvis; less frequently, it’s the shoulders. In the case of a young infant, I believe that’s usually his rump. He is learning to control his limbs, he pushes himself up with his legs and then collapses, and when he settles down against you, you inevitably end up patting his bottom.

Tiny gesture drawing of baby Jake as he wiggled himself to sleep.
There have been very few painters who focused on children. Mary Cassatt—who was unmarried and childless—was one; Kathe Kollwitz—who had childcare so she could concentrate on her career—was another. It’s a pity that we dismiss a subject that’s of such primal importance, for all of us at one time or another have been babies or parents.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.