Reflections of a recovering coffee addict

Love may be an addiction, but it’s at the heart of everything we do. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Birthday, 1915, Marc Chagall, courtesy Museum of Modern Art

Yesterday I quit drinking coffee. This wasn’t my choice; it was on the advice of my medical professional. He’s loads of fun; this regimen also precludes alcohol, sugar, wheat and dairy. None of those other things caused me a moment’s trouble, but the coffee? I’ve been drinking it since I was nine years old. I like the taste, the smell, the buzz. Coffee is a very mild stimulant, I thought, and dropping it out of my diet should be no big deal.

Wrong. I have withdrawal symptoms in spades: headache, tremors, and the need to sleep forever. I looked out at the snow piling up in the driveway, said a bleary “fuggetaboutit” and cancelled my appointment for the afternoon.
Two Lovers Beneath an Umbrella in the Snow, color woodblock print, c. 1767, Suzuki Harunobu, courtesy Art Institute of Chicago
Clearly, coffee is a much bigger player in my biochemistry than I thought. It’s clearly a physical addiction, but it’s one I’ve never paid attention to. That got me wondering what other habits are running in the background, messing with the fine-tuning of my operating system.
When I’m on the road, I can be outside in the field painting by the time the sun clears the trees. My blog is written, I’m showered, my lunch—such as it is—is made, and my gear is set up. Why, then, does it take me until late morning to get into my studio at home? I’m not lazy; in fact, I’m pretty darned disciplined.
The Cradle, 1872, Berthe Morisot, courtesy Musée d’Orsay
It’s this infernal machine I’m holding in my hands. Much of what it shoots at me is chaff, but some things are important. Is there a way to quit my computer like I quit coffee? I don’t think so.
“Back when I first decided to become a painter, of my ‘art’ time, I spent 80% of it painting and 20% on marketing. Now, a couple of decades later, I spend 20% on painting and 80% on marketing,” lamented Michael Chesley Johnsonyesterday. I feel his pain.
That’s not all I do on this machine. I use my computer to ‘talk’ to my friends, read the news, and keep in contact with my adult kids and grandkids. But those are things I enjoy. Relationship is programmed into our minds; our systems rise to it like fish to a lure.
On the other hand, that’s what I said about coffee.
The Resurrection, Cookham, 1924–7, Sir Stanley Spencer, courtesy the Tate
Next week, I’m going to gum up my productivity still farther, by having my grandchildren here for the week. We’ll go see if Little Bear is still sleeping, take a twirl or two on our skates, and visit the beach. All painting will be with tempera on a very short easel.
Love may be an addiction, but it’s the heart of living. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Nocturnes, fear and longing

Now the outsider is us, alone in the dark, excluded from whatever is going on in that beautiful spot of light.

Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow, 1896, James McNeill Whistler, courtesy Fogg Art Museum

Last week my husband was studying a beautiful nocturne by the Taos painter Oscar E. Berninghaus. The dim light is a soft greenish-blue, and he wondered why. Berninghaus didn’t have the advantage of ‘knowing’ what the night sky looks like through color photography. That gave him the liberty to paint what he felt and saw.

The human eye can’t make the adjustment between gloom and brilliance very fast. Because of this, modern photography and lighting have changed how we paint nocturnes, as I wrote here. The change is technological but it also reflects our changing worldview. Nocturnes are about fear and longing as much as they are about design.
Nocturne: Blue and Silver: Chelsea, 1871, James McNeill Whistler, courtesy Tate Museum
Night-painting evolved into its own discipline in the 19thcentury, about the same time as the first gas lights were invented. This corresponds to the Industrial Revolution and urbanization in Europe and America. Suddenly, people were out of their beds and working and playing until all hours.
James McNeill Whistler, more than anyone else, made the nocturne an important subject for painting. His nocturnes are reticent, diffuse and spare. They resolutely refuse to tell any stories. “I care nothing for the past, present, or future of the black figure, placed there because the black was wanted at that spot,” he said of Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow.
Whistler is credited for ushering in modern art with these nocturnes. “By using the word ‘nocturne’ I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and colour first,” he wrote.
Apache Scouts Listening, 1908, Frederic Remington, courtesy National Gallery of Art
His peer in nocturne painting was Frederic Remington. He didn’t particularly like Whistler’s arty-farty attitude to painting, or his nocturnes. “Whistler’s talk was light as air and the bottom of a cook stove was like his painting,” he wrote in his diary. Remington, trained as an illustrator, was primarily a storyteller.
He painted his nocturnes late in his short life, as he tried to find a transitional path between illustration and fine painting. The dark, wavering light of night provided a relief from excessive observation. “Cut down and out—do your hardest work outside the picture and let your audience take away something to think about—to imagine,” he wrote in 1903.
The End of the Day, c.1904, Frederic Remington, courtesy Frederic Remington Art Museum
What was ‘outside the picture’ was often the most important element. Consider Apache Scouts Listening (1908). There’s a fantastic diagonal composition that draws us to the wavering black tree line in the distance. Shadows are cast by unseen trees in the foreground. The crouching scouts listen to some sound we can’t hear, as does the trooper. Even the horses are on edge.
Whistler and Remington had even less photographic color reference than did Berninghaus. That’s why their night skies are so fascinating—they could be any color or texture. The contrast is low, and the unlit night sky is brighter and more varied than we see today.
Rooms for Tourists, 1945, Edward Hopper, courtesy Yale University
Set their nocturnes against those of later artists like Edward Hopper or contemporary painter Linden Frederick. Their skies are inky blue or black, thrown into utter darkness by the ever-present electric lights.
Likewise, the narrative has been completely set on its head. Now, what’s ‘outside the picture’ is us. We’re alone in the dark, excluded from whatever human activity is going on inside.

Two fine painters taken by cancer too soon

Both will be remembered as far more than the sum of their work. We should all aspire to that.
Jorge, by James Asher, courtesy of the artist’s website.
When I met painter Jim Asher, he and his wife, Joe Anna Arnett, had just learned that he had untreatable esophageal cancer. One would never have known that from their demeanor. They had invited the painters of Santa Fe Plein Air Fiestato their home, a 1930s adobe that was featured on This Old House. Despite their personal disaster, they soldiered through.
Jim and I talked briefly about his diagnosis, as I’m a cancer survivor myself. We talked much more extensively about the North Atlantic, which they both knew well and loved.
Joe Anna Arnett and James Asher, courtesy Santa Fe New Mexican.
In the normal course of things, I would not have attended his memorial service. However, I was in New Mexico with our mutual friend, Jane Chapin. It seemed wrong to send her alone. 
The service celebrated Jim’s life’s work, which was notable and well-recognized. But the central theme was love. Jim loved his family, friends, fishing, poetry—and, of course, painting. Others mourned the loss of that love; I walked away with a keen regret that I hadn’t met him decades ago.
That same day, another fine painter, Walter Lynn Mosley, died on the other side of the country. Walter had been suffering visibly from throat cancer since long before he told the world, growing thinner with each passing month. I knew him from the Art Students League but mostly kept up with him through my friends in New York Plein Air Painters, and, of course, on Facebook.
Walter Lynn Mosley, courtesy Cloud Gallery.
Walter was a Brooklynite by choice but a Southerner by birth, and it showed in his manner. He was a kind, gentle, man, humble in his very fine painting skills. His graveside service will be private, and his family asks that donations be made in lieu of flowers “to local artists and faith communities in his honor.”
In neither case did my thoughts leap to their work when I heard of their deaths. I thought of the men themselves and of the people they left behind.
Once, a long time ago, I was moaning about some material setback, now long forgotten. “In the end,” my wise friend Toby told me, “what does it matter? We all end up in a recliner in a nursing home somewhere.” Or a hospital bed, or if we’re exceedingly lucky, we can have a quiet death at home.
That is inescapable. None of us take anything with us—not our work, not the encomiums we have earned here on earth, not even a passport stamped with our good works on behalf of others.
Williamsburg Bridge Sunrise, Walter Lynn Mosley, courtesy artist’s own website.
“The grave’s a fine and private place/But none, I think, do there embrace,” wrote Andrew Marvell in the 17th century. We may have invented a whole new world since then, but that truth remains inescapable. We still must seize the day.
And if we’re remembered as nothing more than painters, we hardly deserve remembering at all.
Jim was, at the end of his life, able to peek through heaven’s doors twice, and he came back to tell his family about it. “The next time, I think I’ll stay,” he told them—and he did.
A week before he died, Walter posted a video on Facebook where he claimed healing through Jesus Christ. You may scoff, but he has that final healing now. Godspeed to both of them, until we meet again.

Monday Morning Art School: how to set up a studio on the cheap

Our ancestors produced masterpieces in badly-lighted, small, cold cramped spaces. You don’t need to spend a fortune to furnish a studio.
The Testrite #500 easel has served me well for many, many years.

I recently got an email about how to set up a studio. After counting about $20,000 in construction and equipment, I laughed and pitched it in the trash. For most new painters, such an expenditure is not justified. Buy expensive easels, taborets, and lighting systems if you can afford them and like pretty things. But never confuse equipment with competence. Nobody ever painted better because he or she had pricey equipment.

When I first started painting professionally, my ‘studio’ was a corner of my kitchen. I had toddlers then, and I worked when I could steal time. The basement was damp and moldy, with occasional freshets of water across the floor. There was simply no room for a dedicated painting space.
Autumn in the Genesee Valley, by Carol L. Douglas. Pastel dust is a bigger environmental concern than oil paint in a small space.
So I threw down a mat to protect the kitchen floor and set up an easel by my son’s high chair. For a taboret, I used an old rolling kitchen cart. I retired it, eventually. Now I’m using a hand-me-down taboret from a retired artist friend. You can buy used rolling kitchen cabinets for $25-50. They’re durable and have storage and a wooden top. The only functional difference between them and the pricey oak cabinets at the art store is that they don’t come with pretty stainless-steel turps cans. Use a coffee can with a coiled wire or pebbles on the bottom. It works just as well.
My teaching studio is furnished with Testrite #500 aluminum easels. They’re less than $100. Mine have survived a few decades of student abuse. When a part gets lost—as they inevitably do—I just buy a replacement online.
Mohawk Valley midnight, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil pastels are less likely to go airborne, and sometimes they’re fun to goof around with.
My own work easel is the Testrite #700, which handles 60” square canvases with no trouble. Anything bigger, I just lean on a wall. I think aluminum easels are great value for money, especially if you’re in a climate with big humidity changes.
The best light source you can have is a north- or east-facing window. If you lack that, you used to have to buy expensive daylight florescent tubes or an Ott Light. Now you can put LED daylight-balanced bulbs in a regular fixture. (These are not appropriate for video, however.)
Just as better lightbulb colors have dropped in price, so have air cleaning systems. I have a $5000 heat-exchanger/filter sitting in a case in my garage. It’s no longer necessary. The introduction of cheap HEPA filter air cleaners made it obsolete. (In general, it’s not the medium but the pigments that are dangerous in art. Worry more about pastel dust than your Gamsol or the vegetable oils in your paints.)
Niagara Falls, by Carol L. Douglas (pastel)
It’s a bad idea to clean your brushes in the kitchen sink. If you don’t have a utility sink, you can make a dry sink. Buy a used sink; our local ReStore always has them. A 5-gallon bucket underneath can catch your drain-water and a 2-liter soda bottle is sufficient to clean most brushes. If that’s too big for your space, be sure to scour your sink carefully after each art cleanup. You don’t want to add pigment to your food.
I use a tie rack, set on its side, as a drying rack for boards and a plate rack for canvases. If a canvas is large enough to need extra support, I simply put a piece of cardboard behind it while it dries.
I bought my flat files used from a printing shop that was going out of business. They’re the one thing that doesn’t have a real-world analog that’s cheaper, but they’re also heavy and take up a lot of real estate. If your collection of papers, etc. is small, you can put it in flat cardboard frame boxes and store it under your bed(s).
Now, to catch my plane!

Places we shouldn’t have tried to go

As long as we have three wheels on the ground, we’re fine, she insisted.

Below the Ridge, by Carol L. Douglas.

If you’ve worked with me in the last few years, you know that I can no longer stand to paint. My back has given me fits since I had radiation twenty years ago. I’ve seen three different surgeons since then. The consensus was that I wasn’t a good candidate for spinal surgery.

Last summer, a fellow painter gave me a prescription pain patch for my lower back. With that, codeine, and a brace I stood long enough to do a (bad) Quick Draw. I could barely sit to drive home to Maine.

Doctors are thin on the ground where we live, so we see a nurse practitioner. He suggested I try physical therapy for my back. I’ve been at it for a bit more than a month now, twice a week when I’m home. I try very hard to do my assigned exercises no matter where I am.
Snow sublimates rapidly at this altitude, even in sub-freezing temperatures.

After Jimmy the Donkey came to help me paint on Tuesday, I decided I’d best try to stand for a while. I trust him, but he shares his pasture with two horses. It felt great—better by far than sitting. I’ve now stood to paint for the past three days. It hasn’t been perfect, but if I have a nearby fence or branch to stabilize myself with, I’m fine. Miracles come in many forms, and one of them is my physical therapist.


The snow here is lighter and finer than what’s back east, and the sun so intense that it rapidly burns off of south-facing exposures. Jane Chapin and I drove to a nearby hamlet to paint log barns in the snow. It was in the teens and low twenties when we started, with a stiff wind. Even as we shivered, the local dogs basked comfortably at our feet.
The beautiful dogs that kept me company while I painted. Don’t they look like lions in the dry grass?
I doubt these dogs have a breed name; I’ve heard them called ‘Mexican dogs’. They’re often brindle- or golden-coated, with strong terrier bodies and lots of smarts. These two kept me company during Santa Fe Plein Air Fiesta, and they were back again as if no time at all had passed. They’re such fine animals that if the opportunity to buy a puppy presented itself, I’d seriously consider it.
There are roads here that are no more than lanes. Slipping down one with difficulty, our canine pals trotting at our side, we came to a point where we couldn’t see over the drop. It was time to back our way out. Piñon and white pine branches that had moved grudgingly when we were heading forward, steadfastly refused to budge as we backed out. “That’ll buff out,” Jane said optimistically. I hope so; it’s her truck.
By the time we were done painting, my hands were so cold I could no longer even draw accurately.
We tried the high road. “I think there’s a turnaround right past the overlook,” Jane said. Possibly, but the road was drifted in. There was a thousand-foot drop to our left. Still, Jane managed to do a 37-point turn to get us out of there. “As long as we have three wheels on the ground, we’re fine,” she said as I gingerly opened one eye.
Jane is very petite, and that truck is very large, but she handled it like a pro. She’d be a great one to paint in the Arctic with, but at that point, a warm lunch by the stove sounded like a more prudent plan.

Why the details matter

Super-simplified paintings may intrigue at first, but do they have enough information to satisfy over time?
Snow at higher elevations, by Carol L. Douglas

Yesterday we let the software engineer out of his cage. He traveled down to Pecos National Historical Park with us. He could get a signal enabling him to work. Meanwhile, we painted a snow squall approaching across the Sangre de Cristo mountains. (We’re limited to satellite here on the ranch and a tethered hotspot is faster.)

As is true on the ocean, the sight-lines in the west are extended. You have hours to watch weather unfold. It made for great painting for us, and a nice work setting for him.
A friend once told me, “I’d never date an engineer; they’re too boring.” I’ve found exactly the opposite to be true. This one has an undergraduate arts degree and is a serious musician as well as being a programmer. When he talks about aesthetics, I listen.
An abandoned farmstead in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
We took him for a brief walk through a small, abandoned farmstead with log and stone barns. It was where I’d spent most of my time during Santa Fe Plein Air Fiesta last April. The difficulty, I’d found, was in the surfaces, which are textured and edgy and needed more definition than my usual painting style. How could I paint them convincingly without being too detailed?
Alla primapainting applies a low-pass filter over everything,” he told me. “You need a way to convey high-frequency information in some places.” Huh?
Think about the sound of clapping. It’s impulsive and unexpected. If you were to look at a graph of it, you would see a spike. That’s what they call a high-frequency sound, and it’s exactly the same as a line, a dot, or an edge in your painting—in other words, it’s a big, sudden, value shift, packed with information. It gets your attention. It’s the opposite of low-frequency sounds, which are more like the hum of your dishwasher in the background.
Our office on the road. My trusty Prius is not up to this terrain. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Perot)
There are low-frequency passages in painting, too. A grey sky is an extreme example. Nothing much changes there. When you save a photo at too low a resolution and it gets blurry, it’s essentially been subjected to a low-pass filter.
When your teacher tells you, “focus on big shapes,” or “ignore the detail,” he or she is telling you to apply a low-pass filter to your painting. In general, that’s good advice—within limits.
And then there was snow, and a gravel road up a mountain ridge. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Perot)
In photography, those blurry, low-resolution photos may intrigue at first glance, but they aren’t that satisfying over time. In the long run, that may be true of paintings as well.
The trick, I think, is to vary high information passages with super-simplified ones. It’s a good goal but it’s not always possible in plein air painting, where you often have to quit before you think you’re finished.
Horno in the snow, by Carol L. Douglas. I haven’t looked out yet to see how much stuck.
And that was exactly what happened to us. One minute, it was dark and cold, and the next, snow was swirling everywhere, obscuring our view.  We slipped up the road back to the ranch. I’m hoping for snow-cover to last through today. If it doesn’t, I’m sure we’ll find something to paint.

There’s no law west of the Pecos

Suffering from over-the-next-hill-itis? Over the next hill it is, then.

Snow along the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas.

I’m in New Mexico with painter Jane Chapin. She’s prepping for surgery on her painting hand; I’m doing physical therapy for my back. Some people might think we ought to be in a retirement home. Instead, we’re ducking under four-strand fences, stomping over icy trails, and generally making a nuisance of ourselves far beyond cell-phone range.

The mountains along the headwaters of the Pecos River are some of the most beautiful country in the world. I painted them while on crutches last spring and did about as well as could be expected. Now my arms are truly free, and I have more mobility.
There wasn’t snow on the desert floor yesterday, but it still filled washes in the higher elevations. It has the granularized texture of old snow; they got a lot of it earlier this winter and it’s lingering. More is predicted. That’s good news in this arid landscape.
The critic is an ass. Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin.
What joy is to be found in painting in snow? It’s hard to struggle in and out of your snowsuit. Painters with circulatory deficits may find their hands hurt, and warm boots are a must. But if you can do it, there’s simply no experience like it.
Snow reflects colors and form like no other surface (other than the sea). It throws pure light back at you, perfectly reflecting the peaches, blues and purples of the western sky. It sets light relations on their heads, putting the lightest colors at the bottom of the canvas and the highest chromas in the sky.
But there’s no point in trying to do it from photos. They simply don’t capture the range of color and texture in real snow. There’s no sculptural form. Everything is flattened to a uniform, dull, white. “It is hard to get the feeling of winter without feeling the winter,” Stapleton Kearns once said.
Upper reaches of the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
Jane’s horses are in their winter pasturage down by the Pecos River. We chose a corner of their space to paint in. Scout and Lucy were uninterested, but Jimmy the donkey had no compunctions about expressing his opinion. It took several minutes of ear-twitching before he gave me the full ears-up.  “The critic is an ass,” mused Jane.
From there we drove up to Cowles Lake, hoping to get a good painting view of snow-covered Pecos Baldy. This is 4WD country. Our Toyota Tundra 4X4 didn’t look like too much truck at all as we fishtailed through slush and ice.
The Cabana Trail is closed for the season, and there were no safe overlooks on the switchbacks. Photos would have to do. The great risk of plein air painting is the temptation to drive around looking for a better view. “I suffer from over-the-hill-itis as much as the next person, but we have to settle down somewhere,” said Jane.
Barbed wire is tough on horses, but it does make a handy sketch-holder.
We stopped and did one more small painting, of the Pecos winding below a wildfire-swept ridge. I love mountains that have suffered forest fires. In the short decades before new growth covers them, their bones are open to examination. It was dark by the time we returned to the ranch, happy, cold and tired. This is the best of plein air painting.

How to sell your artwork

Think the world is going to beat a path to your door just because you’re brilliant? Think again.
Blueberry barrens on Clary Hill, by Carol L. Douglas. Every residency and event is a bullet point for your resume, but more importantly, a chance to be noticed.

“I read your recent post on business realism,” a reader wrote me. “I think I paint well, but I can’t seem to get any traction in the current marketplace. I’ve lost two galleries this year, and that really hurt. What am I doing wrong?”

The art market is morphing, and this reader was right when he added, “there’s no clear path forward.” His loss of gallery representation may have nothing to do with him, but with rapid change in the marketplace.

I know this painter’s work. It’s as fine as anyone’s out there, including many painters making a very juicy income. Why are their paintings selling and his not?
The bottom line is, he’s not nearly as well-known as he ought to be. While he’s painted with some of the big names in the plein air business, that hasn’t given him a particular leg up. Networking is important, but it only takes you so far.
Athabasca Glacier, by Carol L. Douglas. Want people to be interested in you? Do interesting things, preferably without killing yourself.
Do you want it enough to go for it? That makes marketing your primary job. Some people are offended by that, but unless you were born into the upper crust like Édouard Manet, you’re going to have to work to make connections. A better model is Frederic Edwin Church, who embraced, rather than rejected, his father’s bourgeois business model. Nobody can say that Church sacrificed his artistic goals.
You don’t necessarily have to be a starving artist to want to market yourself. I have a friend who’s fascinated by the uncharted machinations of a career in art. After a career in business, she wants to ‘crack the nut’ and figure out how it’s really done.
Spruces and pines on the Barnum Brook Trail, by Carol L. Douglas. This was painted at ADK Plein Air. To have a following, you must be seen.
It’s not about whether you can paint or not. The late, unlamented Thomas Kinkade is just one of a long line of incompetent painters who parlayed an artistic vision into money. I’m not encouraging you to paint terribly, but I am telling you to stop beating yourself up because you’re “not good enough.”
It helps to be young and beautiful. If you’re no longer either of those things, you need to be witty and fascinating instead. A hippie friend once watched me doing my self-care routine. “Why do you do those things to yourself?” she asked in amazement. I can’t be young anymore, but I can be attractive.
You have to be willing to exploit social media. I know you don’t see the point of Instagram and Facebook, but it’s critical to a profile in the modern world. If you don’t have a clue how to do this, find a book or a webinar and learn. Your website is still important, but it’s the catchment basin for all those other things.
Teaching is a great way to get your name out there, but for heaven’s sake, don’t do it unless you can actually teach. The world doesn’t need any more incompetent teachers.
You need a real-world presence somewhere. You’re going to have to do plein air events, tent shows, be in a cooperative gallery, or have gallery representation. You’re going to have to pull up your big-boy paints and go to openings. (This is the hardest thing for me—not because I don’t like people, but because my bedtime is 7:30 PM.) One real-world contact is worth a thousand internet hits.
You need to plug away, a little every day. Running a $1500 ad in a collector magazine is not going to net you anything if you haven’t done incremental publicizing in advance. Press releases, openings, studio parties, blogs, and emails to your collectors are the heart of modern publicity.

Monday Morning Art School: saving a so-so painting

You like it, but there’s something just not exactly right. Or you’re not sure you like it at all.

Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879, Edgar Degas National Gallery, London. How does pattern and repetition hold this painting together?
Last week I went through a collection of paintings belonging to another artist. “Pull out the ones that I should burn,” she said. There were almost none in that category. In fact, most of them were quite lovely.
Of the ones that weren’t, most were promising starts that either fizzled or were never finished. “You can fix this very easily,” I kept saying. Of about 75 small paintings she brought, only a very few were consigned to the burn pile. Most of them needed a simple fix: a passage lightened, an edge softened, or a focal point developed. All she needed was to have those pointed out.
The next day, my student Dave went through my slush pile during a break. It’s huge; it has hundreds of paintings in it. “I love this,” he kept saying. “Why don’t you like this?”
Crucifixion of St. Peter, 1600, Caravaggio, Cerasi Chapel, Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. In chiaroscuro, value creates volume. How did Caravaggio drive us back through space in this painting?
I don’t not like them, I told him; I just don’t feel like selling them. I almost never wipe out work that’s not finished or not what I’d envisioned. They go on shelves in my studio. Occasionally, I will sell these paintings for rock-bottom prices, but mostly they’re there for my edification. Occasionally, I’ll notice something I really like and pull it out and study it, both for what’s working and what isn’t working.
Everyone has problem paintings. Often, I discover a year or two later that what I thought was a problem was actually a roadmap. It was a precursor to where I was headed as a painter. In some cases, all these paintings need is varnish to bring up the color and they sing. Or, they may need revision.
Michael tramples Satan, 1636, Guido Reni, Santa Maria della Concezione church, Rome. How does line drive you through this painting?
Last week, I wrote about the five basic elements of painting design. The best way to rescue a so-so painting is to subject it to formal analysis. That doesn’t mean you have to write a dissertation about it. It means you consider your painting in terms of each of these design elements. Are you using line, shape, space, color and texture to guide the viewer through the space you’ve created? Have you emphasized important passages and subordinated others? Is there repetition, pattern and rhythm in the piece?
A painting that doesn’t work almost always fails in several of these areas. You are as qualified as anyone to analyze your paintings based on these objective standards. There’s a great advantage in learning to do this: you will never be led astray be a stupid critique again. (I once ruined a wonderful painting by following bad advice, made worse because I’d paid for it.)
Le Wagon de troisième classe (The third-class carriage), 1864, Honoré Daumier, Metropolitan Museum of Art. This has nothing to do with the subject of this post; it’s just how I feel when flying.
We recently did this exercise in my Rockport painting class. In my experience, amateurs fixate on mark-making to the exclusion of far more important qualities in painting. They’re so worried about their handwriting that they fail to see the bigger picture. My students walked away from this exercise with the objective knowledge that they were doing better than they thought. I think you will, too.
I would have illustrated this with some of my flubs, but I’m traveling today without access to my server. I’m off to Pecos, NM, to paint snow.

Too much time on Social Media is depressing

How can you turn off the comparisons with others?

Untitled, oil on paper, by Carol L. Douglas

My husband was in Rochester for work this week. Bad weather meant it took a very long time for him to get back to Maine. The easiest way to track his progress was to check his location on Google Maps. I found myself looking at my phone every few minutes. After each glance at his progress, I’d turn to Facebook and Instagram to see what my friends were doing.

By the time he got home, I was thoroughly depressed. Kathleen, Julie, and John all painted gorgeous work yesterday. Meanwhile, I spent the whole day on marketing stuff. “You didn’t do the Strada 31-day challenge and now they’re all driving past you in their Lamborghinis,” I scolded myself.
By the time Doug finally made it home, I would have gone into the backyard to eat worms, except that it’s 0° F. and the worms are all encased in ice. Did I mention that Mark is teaching in Georgia and Charles is in California?
Untitled, by Carol L. Douglas

Comparing oneself to others has long been known to cause depression. It’s only been since the advent of social media that we have found a way to beat ourselves up with it nonstop. Dr. Mai-Ly Steers, who has studied the link between social media and depression, called this phenomenon, “seeing everyone else’s highlight reels.”


“One danger is that Facebook often gives us information about our friends that we are not normally privy to, which gives us even more opportunities to socially compare,” Steers said. “You can’t really control the impulse to compare because you never know what your friends are going to post.
“In addition, most of our Facebook friends tend to post about the good things that occur in their lives, while leaving out the bad… this may lead us to think their lives are better than they actually are and conversely, make us feel worse about our own lives.
Scrotum man (detail), by Carol L. Douglas
For the artist, it means we can constantly compare our own struggles at the easel with our friends’ carefully-lighted, perfectly-photographed finished work. We can come away wondering why we ever thought we could paint in the first place.
Social media is a two-edged sword for artists. It is the conduit through which we (increasingly) pour our work out into the world, but it’s also a way to burn a lot of time and psychic energy. There’s no turning back, so we have to develop strategies to protect ourselves from the anxiety it produces.
The Joker, by Carol L. Douglas
No thought—including envy—can have power over you without your permission, although you do need to be aware that you’re doing it. One of the best ways to get out of the envy loop is to distract yourself. Thinking about something else is a proven coping mechanism for stressful situations. And, luckily, the work we should be doing—making art—is the best possible distraction from the competitive envy we find so difficult to process.