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.


Charity, 1993, watercolor, by Luvon Sheppard
My sister-in-law works in Washington, DC and is no stranger to the many and varied rudenesses of straphanger culture. Yesterday she read aloud from Brittney Cooper’s Listen when I talk to you  in Salon.
Leaving aside Professor Cooper’s self-promotion (she is, after all, a teacher of women’s studies and Africana at Rutgers), these are perilous times in race relations in America.
My friends come in every hue, and they have commented on Ferguson, and their comments have been nuanced and insightful. Why is my experience so different from the reported experience? I live in the urban, integrated north. Moreover, many of my friends are evangelicals, and we have different values from society as a whole.
Title unknown (but it’s Rochester), by Luvon Sheppard
Rochester was the site of one of America’s earliest civil rights era race riots, but it is by and large sitting this out. In September, a shooting killed one cop and injured two others. Last month, I was in church listened to a black woman talking about her fears for her husband, also a cop. It was a sobering testimony, but it reflects the violence in our city and our vulnerability to it.
Title unknown (but it’s Rochester), by Luvon Sheppard
Questions about authenticity are central to art, particularly this year, when a bogus African-American woman was included in the Whitney Biennial. Among the fist-pumpers in this year’s protests is one of my favorite students. His experience is not that of urban black America; his parents are both doctors and immigrants from the Caribbean. I hate to see him appropriate someone else’s story. In doing so, he derails his own.
Rochester is pretty much sitting out the current wave of anti-police violence. Photo by Chip Walker.
Sometimes a teacher teaches best by getting out of the way. I introduced this young man to Luvon Sheppard at RIT. Luvon is black, a native of Rochester, and lived through the race riots. In addition, he’s one of the best painters to ever come out of Rochester. He will have more to say to this gifted young artist than I ever can.

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.